A political football has hit the ground and rolled to a stop.
The Shelby County Commission voted to uphold the county health department's $397,900 subcontract with Christ Community Health Services for Title X funds in a 9-to-4 vote on Monday.
Despite the best efforts of Planned Parenthood advocates, who staged protests and spoke at committee meetings, the nonprofit family planning organization lost the Title X funding it has received since the 1970s.
The decision came after months of back and forth between the state and county health departments and questions about the politicization of family planning services.
Last spring, in a reversal of tradition, state legislators pushed the county health department to take on the full amount of Title X family planning funding, which had historically been dispersed by the state. That move sparked accusations that state GOP leaders were waging an attack on Planned Parenthood for its abortion services (which are not covered by Title X funding but have nonetheless been a lightning rod for the organization).
After agreeing to take on the full amount of funding from the state, the health department released a request for proposal for a Title X funding subcontract to be awarded to a local health provider. Further fueling the suspicion of a political attack on Planned Parenthood, an ad hoc committee awarded the subcontract to the religiously affiliated Christ Community Health Services (CCHS) instead of the veteran recipient Planned Parenthood.
In last Friday's committee meeting, health department director Yvonne Madlock was called on to defend the department's decision to award the Title X funds to CCHS. Christ Community's multiple locations in Shelby County, its "Operation Outreach" van, and comprehensive primary care services were presented as decisive factors for the choice of CCHS over Planned Parenthood.
Republican commissioners brought forth Christ Community's extensive services and charitable work in the community as evidence of its superiority over Planned Parenthood. Democratic commissioners called upon the decades of experience Planned Parenthood has as a Title X provider.
Commissioner Henri Brooks questioned the relevance of any services outside the scope of family planning, saying, "I don't go to my cardiologist to deal with my wisdom teeth."
Only occasionally was abortion mentioned directly. Madlock fielded a question about whether or not abortion services — which Planned Parenthood provides but Christ Community does not — were part of the committee's decision.
"Title X requires that [providers] must provide non-directive information about options for women with a positive pregnancy test," Madlock said. "To that degree it was considered, but to that degree only."
Still, Planned Parenthood advocates worry that CCHS will not provide women with adequate information about the morning-after pill and pregnancy termination options.
Commissioner Walter Bailey, who supported the subcontract in last Friday's committee meeting but reversed his stance in Monday's vote, said he was concerned about a discrepancy between Christ Community's submitted proposal and their current stance. CCHS' initial proposal stated that the organization would provide emergency contraception, but CCHS now says they will refer that service to a third party.
"The Title X requirements are that you have to provide those services. Title X also says you can utilize the services of a third party to do that and that's our intent," said Burt Waller, executive director of CCHS.
As to why CCHS would use a third party instead of distributing emergency contraception in-house, Waller says they want to avoid any controversy: "You get into a lot of issues that have moral and religious overtones, and it's better for us to use a third -arty system."
When asked whether CCHS would be able to give unbiased information about pregnancy termination, Waller said, "If our faith creates a barrier in them receiving the services they need, I'm unaware of it."
Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis is still waiting for a response to their official letter of protest with Shelby County Contracting, sent on September 28th.
"This decision is not in the best interest of the women and families of Shelby County," said Planned Parenthood in an official statement Monday. "It is unfortunate that politics trumped people's needs."