Citing funding cuts, women's health clinic to close

2018-03-13 | The Joplin Globe

March 13--One of a handful of low-cost women's health clinics in Joplin will close next month, limiting local access to sexual health tests and birth control for uninsured women. Women's Health and Family Planning will shut down because it can't cover its costs, according to the nonprofit Economic Security Corp., which has operated the program for 43 years in downtown Joplin.

The announcement of the closure, set for next month, drew dismayed reactions from women who received birth control and other services from the clinic.

ESC officials blamed it on a steady decline in federal funding for women's health, which they attributed to the political tensions surrounding abortion, even though the Joplin clinic does not provide abortions.

The clinic operated for years at a $50,000 annual shortfall, drawing on reserves from elsewhere within the organization, said John Joines, CEO of the ESC.

"The legislators have difficulty in trying to separate our funding, where we offer no abortion services, from those organizations that do," he said. "We've been hit extremely hard."

The number of patients at the clinic dropped sharply in recent years -- to 600 from a high of 2,500 -- as the ESC cut staff.

Still, it is a major provider of health care for low-income women in Joplin, and the only local recipient of federal funding for family planning. In 1,000 annual visits, medical staff at the clinic see patients on family planning, conduct Pap smears and STD tests, educate patients on sexual health, and provide birth control medications.

The clinic provided services to Brittany Henderson, a 34-year-old hairstylist in Joplin, for more than a decade.

When medical staff discovered precancerous cells during a routine Pap smear, they helped her get them removed.

"Insurance isn't the easiest to get in my line of work," she said. "They (the ESC services) have been a blessing."

Henderson also relied on the clinic for family planning. Her first child was born when she was a teenager, and the second followed a year later. But with the help of birth control medications, which she obtained for reduced cost at the ESC, she waited eight more years before deciding to have another child.

The clinic provides services to anyone, regardless of income, but a sliding cost scale means services are free for patients below the federal poverty line. A woman whose family of three brought in less than $20,780 annually would receive free health care at the clinic.

Joines said the program is among the most effective offered at the ESC.

"It's all about getting people out of poverty," he said. "When a person comes to this clinic for reproductive health, they consider spacing their children. They reduce communicable diseases. And people don't get pregnant by accident, which avoid abortions decisions."

Roughly 90 percent of the program's budget was provided by Title X, a federal law that funds family planning programs. The remaining funds come from private grants, patient payments, and since 1998, overall funding has declined in real terms.

Clinic staff includes an OBGYN doctor, a nurse practitioner and several medical assistants. While they could not match the comprehensive care provided at hospitals, it was the difference between life and death for some patients.

A routine test at the clinic uncovered precancerous cells in Kim Stephens' uterus 20 years ago, setting in motion a series of preventive surgeries. She was uninsured at the time and could not afford health care anywhere else.

"It was huge for me," she said. "Had it not been for (the clinic) and its affordability, who knows what would have happened?"

Even as the number of patients has shrunk, the program's impact has remained strong, according to Joines.

"In the last 12 months, we have had six women ... who presented here with some sort of a cancer," he said. "We were able to literally save their lives."

When the clinic closes April 30, other nonprofit clinics will attempt to pick up the slack.

In a prepared statement, the ESC referred its patients to family planning clinics in Joplin operated by Planned Parenthood and Access Family Healthcare, neither of which receive federal funds.

Access Family Healthcare didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Planned Parenthood conducted 1,145 medical visits last year in Joplin -- more than the ESC -- and it is ready to take more patients, said Jesse Lawder, a spokesman for the nonprofit medical provider.

"Whether you need STD testing and treatment, birth control, annual wellness exams, cancer screenings or other services, Planned Parenthood is here for you -- with or without insurance," Lawder said in a statement.

Medical records

The Women's Health and Family Planning clinics ask current patients to obtain their medical records by April 30. To schedule a pickup appointment, call 417-781-4437. To find low-cost women's health care in your area, contact the Missouri Family Health Council at 573-636-4060.