Let’s Speak Up for Title X

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced proposed changes to the rules governing the Title X program. Created in 1970, Title X is the only federally funded grant program exclusively dedicated to providing low-income patients, including adolescents, with essential family planning and preventive health services and information.

The Title X program is an important thread in the fabric of women’s health care. As the only federal grant program of its sort, Title X plays a vital role in ensuring that safe, timely, and evidence based care is available to every woman regardless of her financial circumstances.  However, the proposed changes fundamentally change the nature of the Title X program by restricting access to essential preventive care, interfering in the patient-physician relationship and making it harder for women to make timely, informed decisions about their care. These limitations and restrictions undermine our ability to offer patients medically accurate, comprehensive care.

As ob-gyns, we know the essential role contraception plays in our patients’ lives. Contraception is cost-effective, reduces unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, and allows women to have more control over their reproductive health. It also allows women and their families to achieve greater educational, financial, and professional success and stability. Title X plays an essential role in ensuring these choices are accessible to every woman. No patient should have to sacrifice safety or efficacy because no better options are available to her.

Moreover, Title X does not just address family planning needs, but also routine preventive care. Health centers that receive Title X funds also provide services like well woman exams, breast and cervical cancer screenings, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, testing for HIV, pregnancy testing and counseling, and other patient education and/or health referrals.  These services save women’s lives.

The proposed changes also raise specific concerns about government interference in the practice of medicine. While Title X funds have never been permitted to be used for abortion care, the proposed changes take a further step to exclude qualified providers from participating in the Title X program. This puts access to essential care at risk for 40 percent of Title X’s four million patients.  ACOG opposes any effort to exclude qualified providers from federal programs.

We oppose political efforts to direct health care providers to withhold information or rely on non-evidence based counseling methods. We consider any effort to move away from science-based principles to be interference in the patient-physician relationship.  Women count on their providers for clear medical information. The government should not limit what information women can know or what kinds options she should be given.

This level of interference in the practice of medicine would set a dangerous precedent for all areas of medicine.

In practice, these changes will have the most profound impact on low income women and women of color, the very patients this program was created to serve. We cannot accept less access or fewer options for some patients simply by circumstances of their geography or finances.

Your voice can make a difference on this important issue. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be asking you to engage in advocacy on this issue, including submitting comments. In July, ACOG  members will receive a sample comment template to use.

Thank you in advance for joining me in ensuring that women have continued access to high quality, medically accurate reproductive and preventative health care through Title X. It’s essential to women’s health.

Building Strong Patient Relationships Begins in Adolescence

While many people are eager to leave their adolescence behind them, as ob-gyns, we know all too well that the development that occurs during these years lays the foundation for the rest of our lives. Not only are bodies and minds maturing, but adolescence is also defined by exposure to new ideas, experiences, and beliefs. Ideally, it is also the age where girls and young women begin to routinely visit the ob-gyn.

ACOG recommends that girls have an initial visit for screening and the provision of reproductive preventive health care services and counseling between the ages of 13 and 15 years. Caring for patients beginning in adolescence gives ob-gyns an important opportunity to focus on establishing a relationship of trust and ensuring young women are empowered with comprehensive knowledge about their reproductive health. Ensuring women get this knowledge helps them at every stage, not just adolescence. It informs all kinds of life decisions– from becoming sexually active to planning when and if to have a baby.

Of course, we cannot have these important conversations without acknowledging that while the United States has made progress reducing rates of unplanned pregnancy among teenagers, our rate remains among the highest in the developed world. Recent guidance, “Adolescent Pregnancy, Contraception, and Sexual Activity,” directly addresses the role ob-gyns can play to support adolescent girls in preventing unintended pregnancy. Contraceptive access to highly effective methods remains one of the most important factors, but comprehensive sexual education is also critical.

The success of this education relies on trust. In new guidance out this month, “Counseling Adolescents About Contraception,” ACOG highlights the importance of listening carefully to young patients concerns and priorities when discussing which contraceptive method choices are best for them. By the time they are teenagers, many young women have already been exposed to different ideas about contraception through friends, family, and pop culture. At the same time, they’re making decisions for themselves about their health care and what is important to them; physicians should be aware of these preferences and concerns and should partner with young women to assist them in making choices about their reproductive health.

Listening and respecting a patient’s perspectives and priorities truly should define the patient-provider relationship, not just one conversation. In many instances, ob-gyns may be the most trusted adult for teens who are ready to have essential conversations about their reproductive health, sexual activity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or mental health. We must be mindful of the sensitivities around these topics, and do our best to provide each patient with the care and knowledge she seeks. This also may include helping patients and parents navigate this new territory together; ob-gyns should encourage and support this communication when appropriate.

As late summer approaches, and more adolescents cross our paths, checking off annual doctor visits before the school year begins, we should each take time to reflect on our effort to have a lasting impact on patients’ reproductive health knowledge and relationship to their ob-gyn.

For a comprehensive overview of ACOG’s adolescent health care guidance, head to: https://www.acog.org/About-ACOG/ACOG-Departments/Adolescent-Health-Care

Contraception Is Not a Luxury, It’s Preventive Care

As women’s health care providers, we witness firsthand the impact access, or lack thereof, to birth control has on a woman’s life daily. Access to contraception is essential to women’s health and livelihood. Though contraception’s most vital role is empowering women to take control over their reproductive health, it touches every corner of their lives, from helping with management of other health issues to ensuring women can pursue their educational goals and achieve professionally without interruption from unintended pregnancy.

Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act made landmark progress for women’s health care by guaranteeing women’s access to essential preventive care, including contraceptive access with no co-pay. As a result, women went from spending 30 to 44 percent of their out of pocket health care costs on contraception to saving $1.4 billion annually on birth control. This rule ensured that women’s decisions about birth control could be singularly focused on what was best for their health and their academic, professional, economic, and social priorities—not what they can afford.

However, in the coming days or weeks the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to publish a rule that will eliminate the contraceptive coverage benefit. A political move in direct contradiction to the clinical and scientific evidence pointing to the vital role of contraception in comprehensive preventive health care, not to mention the mounting research verifying the profound positive impact increased access to contraception has on women’s economic and professional lives.

Prior to the ACA, cost was one of the greatest barriers to women’s contraceptive access. In many communities like the rural farming community in North Carolina where I was reared, people lived paycheck to paycheck, and many families did not have the privilege of prioritizing health care over basic needs of daily living. By assessing contraceptive choices by cost, we risk making birth control a luxury rather than a part of comprehensive preventive care. The average IUD costs $1000, or a month’s wages for a woman making the federal minimum wage, $7.25/hour, putting it totally out of reach for most of these women, despite being one of the most effective forms of birth control.

Women are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty, and therefore are disproportionately affected by unintended pregnancy and its consequences. Women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to delay prenatal care, resulting in a higher risk of birth defects, prematurity, low birth weight, and neonatal and infant morbidity and mortality.

This week we convened on Capitol Hill to present to a bipartisan group of representatives on maternal mortality and the role of affordable contraception on maternal health. Affordable and available contraception options enable women to make deliberate choices about if, when, and how many children they want to have and plan for pregnancy when they are more financially prepared. It can also be lifesaving for women who already face serious medical conditions. So, we cannot afford to return to a time where women did not have comprehensive reproductive health choices. This most certainly would turn back the clock on women’s health.