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Planned Parenthood Rolls Out Tele-Health Program As Clinics Close

Planned Parenthood is connecting Denver-based health care professionals with patients on the Western Slope.
Planned Parenthood is connecting Denver-based health care professionals with patients on the Western Slope.
Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock.com

When the regional leaders of Planned Parenthood heard that the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare had failed, they breathed a sigh of relief — but not for long. Even without the threat of the American Health Care Act, which would have cut about 40 percent of the organization’s budget and billions from Medicaid funding, the leaders of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains are taking measures to ensure that as many people have access to care as possible.

“We leaned back for a day after the so-called health care bill was kind of announced dead on arrival,” says Adrienne Mansanares, the chief experience officer at PPRM. “So that was wonderful and celebratory, and then, of course, life returned — and there’s always something else coming down the pipe.”

PPRM, which operates 29 clinics in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, is facing some serious threats. In August, two clinics will be closed on the Front Range — one in Longmont and another in Parker — to balance a tight budget. In September, three more clinics are slated to close in New Mexico, halving Planned Parenthood operations in that state.

Opponents quickly applauded the closures as evidence that Planned Parenthood can no longer fund operations in the Rocky Mountain region.

“Planned Parenthood’s enterprise is crumbling, even while they are still raking in over half a billion dollars a year from taxpayers,” said Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser in May to Breitbart, which promotes strong anti-abortion views. “Their abortion-centered business model isn’t just morally wrong, it’s a failure. In a market where there are so many better options, women don’t need to get their health care from Planned Parenthood.”

PPRM has rolled out a web-based health-care model, which links Denver nurses with underserved areas over a communication platform like Skype. The pivot has already been made in Durango and Steamboat, as well as Las Vegas. Here, patients can walk into an existing Planned Parenthood clinic that is staffed with assistants, speak online with a clinician in Denver, and pick up a prescription in their own town.

The goal, says Phillips, is ensuring that low-income patients in rural areas like the Western Slope have access to health care without putting medical staff in each and every clinic. “Many are Medicaid patients, and they would not otherwise be able to receive those services,” she explains. “If you think about where Durango and Steamboat are located and the mileage, the cost of gas, the hotel and the time and all that, this allows us to really efficiently provide face-to-face care while our clinician is still in Denver.”

However, if Coloradan women on the Western Slope need a prescription for the bill that induces an abortion, they won’t be able to get that treatment online. Only the Las Vegas clinic offers abortion pill consultations over the web, says Mansanares, because she is unsure whether that program would be met with resistance in rural communities around Durango.

“We were hesitant to launch [an abortion pill program] right away without knowing if that would be something that the community [in Colorado] would support," she says.

Phillips cites a recent Colorado law that allows year-long birth-control prescriptions as a major boost for women’s reproductive rights. With this law and the web-based service plan, she says, more clinics can stay open while more patients in rural areas can get the care they need. And she says that lessons learned from Durango, Steamboat and Las Vegas tele-medicine experiments will be used to expand that model into places like Wyoming, which only has one Planned Parenthood for the entire state.

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“We are very excited to roll this out… particularly in places where there may not be a health center or we may have had to make a difficult decision to close some down,” Phillips says.

The closures in August and September are just a piece of the challenges that Planned Parenthood has faced in the region, particularly in rural Colorado, where 42 percent of children and 20 percent of adults are insured by Medicaid. Mansanares believes that if the Republican health care plan had passed, the repercussions would have been severe.

“We were thinking, what do we do if we can’t see a Medicaid patient tomorrow?” she says. “What do we do when the person who was just diagnosed with breast cancer comes in for a followup and we can’t see that patient? We were going to be screwed."

Planned Parenthood fought hard against the bill, spending $30 million nationally on lobbying activities, protests and e-mail and phone campaigns. At Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which operates 29 sexual and reproductive health clinics in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, the goal was to prevent a "yes" vote from Colorado Republican senator Cory Gardner and others.

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