Planned Parenthood president hails 'silver lining' to coronavirus

shutterstock 439439689 Planned Parenthood location in Dayton, Ohio. | Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock

Planned Parenthood's president has hailed an increase in telehealth services, including access to chemical abortions, as a "silver lining" of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is actually a silver lining in this pandemic, that Planned Parenthood and many other health providers have actually been able to really lean into telehealth infrastructure and provide service," said Alexis McGill-Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, interview with Democracy Now! published Monday.

McGill-Johnson noted that by the end of April, the organization would be providing telehealth services in all 50 states, from "STI screenings, to family planning, to HIV PEP and PrEP, and, in much the same way as I said, to provide some wraparound service around getting access to abortion."

In the interview, Johnson noted how an expansion of telehealth through apps like Skype increased access to chemical abortions where "that patient will come and pick up the prescription and go home and take that medication safely at home. And then we are able to do follow-up care, again via telehealth."

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services announced in March that it would not enforce penalties against health care providers for potential privacy violations resulting from using technologies such as Skype to communicate with patients.

"OCR is exercising its enforcement discretion to not impose penalties for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth using such non-public facing audio or video communication products during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency," OCR stated in March.

Pro-life leaders have warned of an increase in chemical abortions during the pandemic; a letter from members of Congress to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged that current regulations of chemical abortions not be loosened.

An April 14 op-ed by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, warned that remote chemical abortions "via telemedicine and the mail" represented "the next frontier" of the abortion industry.

McGill-Johnson on Monday also called temporary state bans on elective abortions during the pandemic "unconscionable." Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers have been fighting state orders including in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio, Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee, that seek to curtail elective abortions during the COVID-19 outbreak as part of limiting non-essential medical procedures and conserving resources to fight the pandemic.

Planned Parenthood-the nation's largest abortion provider, with 345,672 abortions reported during the 2019 fiscal year-receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually in taxpayer funds, through federal, state and local health grants, contracts, and Medicaid reimbursements.

Federal policy-the Hyde Amendment-has long prohibited taxpayer funding of abortion, but the grants and Medicaid reimbursements are meant to be used for services other than abortion, such as contraceptives.

In 2019, the Trump administration tightened up the restrictions for the Title X family planning program. Under the new Protect Life Rule, which was meant to cut down on access to taxpayer money for abortion providers, Title X recipients could not refer for abortions as a method of family planning, and could not be co-located with abortion facilities.

The Title X program was created in 1970 with the stipulation that funds could not be used for abortion as a method of family planning; the regulations governing the funding, however, have been altered over time; the Clinton administration allowed for recipients to refer for abortions and co-locate with abortion clinics.  

Planned Parenthood sued the Trump administration over the new rule, but then voluntarily withdrew from the Title X program in August; it had received an average of around $60 million annually from the program.

Before withdrawing from Title X, however, Planned Parenthood had actually seen its public revenues increase during the Trump administration after remaining largely stagnant for years under the Obama administration.

In its most recent annual report, Planned Parenthood reported more than $616 million in government funding for the 2019 fiscal year, a raise of more than 8% from its figure of $563.8 million for FY 2018.

Efforts by Congress to strip the organization of federal funding derailed despite Trump promising to see it through during his 2016 campaign. While the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, the Republican-led Senate failed to do so.

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The organization saw its government funding double between FY 2006 and FY 2019, according to an analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Planned Parenthood received a spike in public funding from 2009-2010, and another increase in 2011, but its public funding remained largely the same throughout the rest of the Obama administration until an increase in 2018 and again in 2019, according to Heritage's report.

Johnson also said on Monday that some women had driven "thousands of miles" to obtain pills for chemical abortions after Texas banned all elective abortions, including chemical abortions, during the pandemic. The state lifted its temporary abortion ban last week.

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