published Friday, May 6th, 2011

Renew family planning funds

The decision by a majority of Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday to reject and then, after reconsideration, to table for further study a contract for family planning services through the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department is wrong. It is politically and ideologically motivated. It is short-sighted. It ill serves county residents who have no other place to turn for gynecological and health services. The additional time for study is fine, but only if commissioners really do their homework. If they do, they should promptly approve the contract.

It’s a wonder that the contract has become an issue at all. Previous commissions routinely approved similar documents for decades. Indeed, the proposed contract for $581,700, which would take effect in July, is essentially a continuation of what has been in place for years. There’s no reason for change. Almost all of the money comes from federal sources, and the services provided are essential to the health and well-being of a vulnerable part of the community’s population.

Some of the commissioners who voted to table the contract suggest that ending it would cut costs. That reasoning is flawed. The majority of funding comes from federal grants; less than 10 percent comes from the county. Moreover, every dollar spent on family planning is returned many times over to taxpayers in the form of reduced medical expenses and social services. That’s especially so in Hamilton County, where there is a high infant mortality rate.

Concerns that the family planning funds might be spent on abortions are simply wrong. The department does not provide abortion services, a point made clear to commissioners by Becky Barnes, health department administrator. Rather, the family planning program is designed to prevent abortions by providing various forms of contraception as well as education and counseling services that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.

One commissioner, Mitch McClure, asked if the health department dispensed RU 486, sometimes called “the abortion pill.” It does not, Barnes explained. RU 486 is used by prescription to terminate a pregnancy in the first seven weeks after conception. The health department here used Plan B One-Step, which is emergency contraception that has to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse to prevent not abort a pregnancy. The Plan B “morning after pill” is not offered without careful evaluation. Family planning counselors and staff administer a pregnancy test before it is dispensed. Those who test positive do not get the Plan B pill. It’s all part of a carefully designed program that helps women make sound decisions about family planning.

Tennessee law requires every county to provide health care for its citizens. Family planning services are a vital part of those services. Commissioners should renew the health department contract, rather than use spurious issues and doubtful claims to shirk their duty.

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