Health
12:13 pm
Wed July 20, 2011

Anti-Abortion Measure Targets Travis County

An amendment that conservative state lawmakers hoped would wipe out the only taxpayer-funded elective abortions in Texas ultimately might not do much at all.

One of many tacked onto an omnibus health care bill during the Legislature's special session in June, the amendment by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, aims to remove state funding from any hospital district — a health care system financed by city or county tax dollars – that provides elective abortions.

By law, no state or federal dollars may be used to pay for elective abortions in any setting. Just one local hospital district in the state, out of a total of 138, currently uses tax dollars to pay for elective abortions. And most of that district's funding comes from local taxpayers and other nonstate funds — meaning the amendment's threat may not loom large.

Central Health, formerly the Travis County Healthcare District, sets aside $450,000 every year — one half of 1 percent of the hospital district's health care budget — to fund family planning services, including elective abortions, for poor Travis County women who have no other means of health coverage. The hospital district contracts with three women’s health clinics in Austin to do it.

According to Stacy Wilson, director of government affairs for the hospital district, 60 percent of the district’s funding comes from Travis County property taxes, and another 37 percent comes from leasing University Medical Center at Brackenridge to the Seton Healthcare Family, which operates seven hospitals in Central Texas. The remaining 3 percent comes from a variety of other sources.

Central Health has hired lawyers to ascertain what effects, if any, the amendment will have, according to Clarke Heidrick, one of nine members of the hospital district's board. The board will meet Wednesday night to discuss how to proceed. “We’re just not clear on how [the state] is going to remove funding from us, since we get so much of it from [Travis County] taxpayers,” Heidrick said.

Wilson said Central Health doesn't get any direct Medicaid dollars from the state. The hospitals affiliated with Central Health are “in no way in jeopardy," Wilson said, because they do not permit elective abortions. 

Only 0.1 percent of abortions in Texas take place in hospitals, and only for medical emergencies, according to Jennifer Banda, senior director of government relations for the Texas Hospital Association. “You cannot walk in and ask for one at a hospital,” Banda said. “But say that a woman was in a car accident and starts hemorrhaging in her uterus, and the only way to save her is by removing her baby — then doctors will perform an abortion.”

If a woman wants an abortion for nonmedical reasons, she must go to a women’s health clinic that provides the procedure. Central Health contracts with Planned Parenthood of Austin, as well as Whole Woman’s Health of Austin and the Austin Women’s Health Center, to provide such services for poor women. The district also contracts with the YWCA to provide counseling for women who have chosen to have an elective abortion. District officials, who said abortion costs range between $495 to $610, depending on the service and medication, have not ever spent the entire $450,000 allocated in a single year.  

Christian said the purpose of his amendment was to put a stop to the agreements between Central Health and the three women’s health clinics. He said he knew that Travis County was the only hospital district to fund elective abortions when he authored the amendment. He didn't intend to attack the county specifically, he said.

“I just think tax dollars should not be used for abortions anywhere in Texas,” Christian said. “I think that what is going on in Travis County is wrong.”

Women's health clinics are already under siege by the Legislature: Lawmakers cut tens of millions of dollars of family planning funding during the last session.