Will look for alternative funding for the program next year
By Michael Howell
In a stuffy and overcrowded administration meeting room on August 4, the Ravalli County Commissioners heard a lot of heartfelt and heart-touching public testimony about the value of the county’s Family Planning Program before finally approving on a 3 to 2 vote to accept over $39,000 in federal funds for this fiscal year but to look for alternative funding for future years.
The commissioners initially voted down a motion to sign the task order accepting the federal funds that come through the state as part of Title X. Commission Chair J.R. Iman was the only commissioner to vote for accepting the funding. The other four all voted against accepting the funds primarily because they could not condone taking money for a government program that allows children to make major medical decisions, such as taking birth control, without their parents being informed. Following the defeat of that motion, Commissioner Greg Chilcott offered a motion to approve the task order but to look for alternative funding for the program by the 2012 fiscal year. Otherwise, he said, all the other critical services offered by the program would be left in the lurch without any alternative funding in place. He said this would allow for a transition. The motion was approved on a 3 to 2 vote with Iman, Chilcott and Suzy Foss voting in favor. Ron Stoltz and Matt Kanenwisher cast the dissenting votes.
Authorized in 1970 by then President Richard Nixon, Title X funds are aimed at providing preventive health care to people at or below the poverty level. The county has been using the funds for over thirty years to offer the various services provided on a sliding fee scale at the Public Health Office. Under the current budget it would mean a full-day clinic twice each month, down from the previous weekly clinic sessions.
At the beginning of the meeting, Public Health Nurse Judy Griffin briefly described the county’s Family Planning Program. She said the program offers immunizations, emergency preparedness education, HIV exams, as well as pregnancy testing and counseling. Griffin said that 80 percent of the program’s clients were 18 years or older. She said 78 percent are at or below the poverty level.
Griffin said that. if the funds are not accepted, many Ravalli County citizens will be going without any basic health care. She said the effects would be “overwhelming.” In part because the program serves as a stop gap for many other agencies that will have to handle the consequences.
“Where will our clients obtain services?” asked Griffin.
Ravalli County Public Health Officer Dr. Carol Calderwood expressed strong support for the program. She said the program was valuable socially, medically and economically to the community. She said the benefits of the program were far reaching, including reduced morbidity, decreased sexually transmitted diseases, success with early cancer detection, fewer unwanted babies, decreased incidents of child abuse and abortions. She said that eliminating the program would be “a social, medical and economic travesty.”
In a telephone conference call with Denise Higgins, Bureau Chief of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and other officials including Helen McAfree and James Smiley, the Commissioners confirmed that if they were to accept the Title X funding they would be required to implement the full range of services and would not be able to funnel the money to some of the services and deny it to others. Higgins called it “a package program.”
Commissioner Kanenwisher said that the use of planned contraception might be a matter for discussion but “the deal breaking issue is parental notification.” He said that children have rights that until a certain age reside with the parents. He said it was a constitutional issue and referred to a few U.S. Supreme Court cases and stated,”low cost medical treatment and low cost education are not rights.”
Kanenwisher wondered if the benefit to the county residents of the $39,000 would be so great as to justify the violation of parental rights.
“A parent’s relationship with their child is sacred,” said Kanenwisher.
“That is 100 percent my stance,” said Commissioner Foss. She said it was all about parental rights. She said that even when parents are being kept out of the loop they still suffer the consequences of the decisions that are made while they are being kept in ignorance.
“What Matt wrote is exactly what I feel,” said Commissioner Stoltz.
Commissioner Chilcott said that he was very divided over the issue. He said that he understood the problem of child victims of abuse and the need at times to protect a child from its parent.
“But parental rights concern me,” he said. “It is a fundamental right. He said it came down to what a commissioner could do and still live within his moral beliefs.
Commission Chair J.R. Iman said that the public health programs were “a three legged stool” that depends on support from local, state and county levels. He said the parental notification issue was confined to a small part of the program.
“To sacrifice that for a single problem is not adequate to me,” said Iman.
Public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of funding the program. Many doctors, nurses and other health professionals spoke about the great need in the community for such a program.
Valerie Whitman, a registered nurse working at Emma’s House, a facility that treats child victims of abuse, said, “There needs to be a place for kids to go who can’t go to their parents.”
Former County Attorney George Corn pointed out that every commission of every political make up has been accepting these funds since the program started. He said the current commission should heed “30 years of collective wisdom” on the matter. He asked the commission to think of the poor who would be affected by the decision.
“They will suffer for your principles,” said Corn.
Others called the notion of denying the funding “appalling” or as “showing callous disregard.”
Some of the public, however, supported the decision to refuse the funds.
Pastor Harris Himes said, “This is absolutely a Biblical contest.” He said the Bible teaches that parents raise their kids and not the state.
“To accept these dollars is to deny God’s mandate,” said Himes.
A few other members of the public also applauded the Commissioners for “standing up for their principles” and urged them to deny the funding.
Commissioner Kanenwisher made a positive motion to approve the task order and accept the money for the sake of discussion.
Commissioner Foss stated that she was aware that many of the services being offered were critical for many children and women. She said that she had some questions that still needed answering about some of the numbers involved. She said that the best solution would be to find some other sources of funding for the program because parental rights were also critical.
Commissioner Kanenwisher said that abusive parents should have custody of their children taken from them through due process. He said the alternative of denying parental rights guaranteed by the constitution was not acceptable. He said that he would not sacrifice those rights for any of the presumed benefits.
Commissioner Stoltz said that he agreed.
Chilcott reiterated that he was torn over the issue and did not know how to blend that.
Foss gave the first indication of how she might vote, saying, “I feel like I’m selling my soul but we need to help these women.”
However, all the commissioners except Iman voted against signing the task order and accepting the funds on their first vote. Chilcott’s compromise motion to accept the funds this year and look for replacement funds was then approved 3 to 2, with Iman, Chilcott and Foss voting in favor.