Wisconsin must unite around reproductive health care

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As we enter 2013, we continue to face the stark reality that too many people are dying or facing a life-threatening disease due to lack of access to health care. The new year provides a new opportunity for all of us to work together, despite partisanship, to address essential health care needs.

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s number one priority is to continue to meet our communities’ needs for essential and life-saving health care. Each year, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin serves nearly 80,000 patients with a wide range of preventative health services, including life-saving breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, testing and treatment for STDs and sexual health education.

Despite these efforts, nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin women in need of publicly supported reproductive and sexual health services – more than 165,000 people – go without this care. 

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin is the largest nonprofit reproductive and sexual health care provider in the state. We work every day to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and to keep women and men safe, healthy and strong through early cancer detection and testing and treatment of STDs.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood and the other community-based health providers in Wisconsin helped avert 24,300 unintended pregnancies in 2008, which would likely have resulted in 10,800 births and 10,100 abortions. Averting these unintended pregnancies in Wisconsin helped save the federal and state governments $94.3 million in Medicaid costs for pregnancy-related and newborn care in 2008.

Improving access to reproductive health care also means enhanced access to the early detection and treatment of breast and cervical cancer. Breast and cervical cancer are two of the most common forms of cancer among women in the United States.

Early detection is key to successful treatment. In 2011, Planned Parenthood played a critical role in the early detection and screening of breast and cervical cancer by conducting 9,040 cancer screenings.

The socioeconomic barriers faced by many women of color, however, leave them without access to early cancer detection screenings. Consequently, cervical cancer impacts women of color at a rate two times higher than white women, and African-American women die from breast cancer at a much higher rate than white women.

If we are committed to addressing this significant gap in care, investments in early cancer detection and treatment programs will be key to saving the lives of all Wisconsin women.

In 2011, Planned Parenthood provided more than 73,515 STD and HIV tests. While HIV rates have remained stable over the past decade, African-American and Hispanic men and women are infected at a rate 5-25 times greater than whites. Today, one in three African-American men who have sex with men ages 15-59 are estimated to be HIV-positive – a rate 500 times higher than the general public in Wisconsin.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and estimates that 21 percent of people living with HIV are unaware of their HIV status. We must get serious about addressing this and saving lives by enhancing access to HIV prevention information, testing and care.

Providing essential health care services to people should not be a partisan issue. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, we can all agree that ensuring women and men have access to health care is an important priority. Yet, each legislative session we are faced with dozens of politically motivated policies that impose barriers to access.

It appears the 2013 session will follow this pattern. Despite an election where voters spoke loud and clear that they don’t want politicians meddling in personal medical decisions, our legislative leaders have not indicated any intention of changing their ways. Special interest groups focused on ending women’s access to all reproductive care have already previewed their wish list – policies restricting women’s access to everything from birth control to fertility services to abortion.

There is still time to choose a new direction. We must work together. We call on our elected leaders to set aside politics and join with us in addressing the health of the state of Wisconsin.

Tanya Atkinson is vice president for public affairs and education for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.