Department of Health and Human Services

Eight Planned Parenthood organizations sued Texas on Wednesday for excluding them from participating in a program that provides contraception and check-ups to women, saying the new rule violates their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.

The groups, none of which provide abortions, contend in the federal lawsuit that a new state law banning organizations affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Women’s Health Program has nothing to do with providing medical care and is simply intended to silence individuals or groups who support abortion rights. Texas law already requires that groups receiving federal or state funding be legally and financially separate from clinics that perform abortions.

The federal government has also cut funding to Texas over the issue, saying it violated federal law. It says the law passed by conservative Republicans and signed by Gov. Rick Perry denies women the right to choose their health care providers.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces the rule, issued a statement saying it believes the state was within its rights to pass the new law. Last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services demanding that it restore off funding for the Women’s Health program.

Republican lawmakers made it clear during last year’s legislative session that their aim was to shut down as many Planned Parenthood groups as possible. The new law says that a health care provider that shares a name, common ownership or a franchise agreement with any organization that provides elective abortions will be excluded from the program, regardless of whether the provider meets all medical standards.

Shenkken said the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution prevent states from punishing groups for their political views or associations by excluding them from programs in which they are otherwise qualified to participate.

The Planned Parenthood groups have asked the federal court in Austin to block the state from enforcing the law before April 30, when those clinics would lose all funding under the new rule.

Patricio Gonzalez, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Hidalgo County, said his organization currently cares for 6,500 women and would have to shut down two or three of its four clinics if the rule is enforced. South Texas is home to some of the poorest women in the nation.

“We are the largest health care provider for women in our region,” he said. “We know there aren’t any other providers in the region that can absorb 6,500 women as of May 1.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has said it will try to recruit additional health care providers to make up for those lost under the new rule.

Published on Thursday, April 12, 2012 as : Planned Parenthood sues Texas over exclusion from program

In August of 2012 new guidelines will go into effect mandating that insurance providers cover a wide variety of new sexual and reproductive services for women. However, itÂ’s not certain how the new policy, devised by the Department of Health and Human Services, will affect the premiums of health care providers and insurers. (Photo Illustration)

Photo Credit: Andrew Edmonson | Daily Texan Staff

Women’s health advocates are celebrating a new set of guidelines from the Obama Administration that require insurance providers to cover a slew of sexual, reproductive and mental health services for women.

For all new and renewed policies, insurance providers will be required to waive co-pays for contraception, women’s health visits, domestic violence counseling, sexually transmitted disease screening and support for breast-feeding equipment because of guidelines adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services. The nonpartisan Institute of Medicine proposed the guidelines, which go into effect August 2012.

This additional health insurance reform is part of the Affordable Care Act President Obama signed into law March 23, 2010. Other items that require coverage under the act include mammograms, colonoscopies, blood pressure checks and childhood immunizations.

It is unclear how the changes will affect insurance premiums or health care providers and pharmacies, such as the University Health Center, that may rely on co-pays as a source of funding.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a press release the new guidelines will help women get the preventative health benefits they need.

Texas Feminists President Jenny Kutner, a Plan II and women’s and gender studies senior, said the act provides relief after a state legislative session that reduced access to women’s health with a bill requiring women to undergo sonograms and hear a description of the fetus before they can get an abortion.

“I think [these guidelines are] necessary especially in the current political climate around reproductive health,” Kutner said. “It currently seems like a war on women.”

Alumna Anna Sallack was in the Catholic sorority Mu Epsilon Theta and said the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception is difficult to summarize, but she believes it is wrong to use contraception to prevent new life. She also said she is disappointed there’s not emphasis on multiple prevention methods including abstinence.

“I would be more pleased with it if there was a pro-life versus pro-choice aspect to it,” Sallack said.

Out-of-pocket co-pays for contraception can run from $25 to $35, according to Sarah Wheat, interim Co-CEO for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region.

“I think it’s incredibly positive news for women’s health,” Wheat said.

Wheat said women have historically paid 65 percent more for health care out-of-pocket than men because pregnancy planning is not covered by insurance.

“For decades, contraception has been treated as something outside the health care system,” Wheat said. “So with these guidelines, contraception and women’s health are being mainstreamed.”

LeAnn Gutierrez, assistant director for University Health Services, said the lowered costs are good because accessibility to women’s health services has been reduced because of decreases in state funding over the past few years.

“Anytime an insurance company is waiving co-payments, it is an awesome benefit for our students,” Wheat said. “Especially when our students are making so many health care decisions with their pocketbooks.”

Printed on Thursday, August 4, 2011 as: Insurance requirements to raise women's coverage

Earlier this month, the USDA, department of agriculture and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, which will replace the food pyramid. Photos courtesy of USDA.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, a national nutritional guideline that would replace the food pyramid and bear the official seal of approval from the USDA. MyPlate was created in part by Obama’s campaign against obesity. It does away with the prescribed portion sizes for different food groups, instead using the visual of a dinner plate divided into four sections. Half of the plate is designated for fruits and vegetables, with grains and proteins making up the rest. To the side is a smaller circle for dairy products.

This redesign comes at a crucial point in American health statistics. In January, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services released the seventh edition of their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which classifies more than one-third of children and two-thirds of adults in the United States as overweight or obese. MyPlate’s ascension and the food pyramid’s retirement reflect the current American dietary landscape and our predilection for visually vibrant and deceptively simple design. Together, they don’t necessarily communicate eating healthily as simply or as effectively as many may hope.

The U.S. first started growing concerned about the nutrition and health of Americans in the 1970s, following the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. And yet, it seems no amount of information about dietary health presented in any fashion is getting through. We’re as an unhealthy as ever.

How is it in this constantly connected information age we’re still eating so poorly, even as the evidence is ostensibly right in front of us? Because all the nuances of choosing the right food and knowing what’s in them is too complex to be boiled down into a simple graphic.

The original design, created in 1992 and the most familiar to young people, has been maligned by health experts, such as Harvard nutritionist Dr. Walter Willet (a longtime critic of the USDA’s health guidelines), for being too vague and not based on the most up-to-date science. The revamped pyramid created in 2005, called MyPyramid, was essentially the same as the previous pyramid, just turned on its side. MyPyramid featured an even more abstract design — most public displays did not even include pictures of food. MyPyramid also included a stairs element alongside the pyramid that is supposed to symbolize the need for physical activity, but the ambiguity of the design made it difficult to convey that information.

Willet and the Harvard School of Public Health (where he is the chair of the department of nutrition) have been critical of the food pyramid and its incoherence, lack of current data and heavy influence from the food industry. That influence that is difficult to ignore because the food pyramids and MyPlate were created in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the advocacy of U.S. food producers.

While the influence may not be as overt in MyPlate, it still doesn’t do enough to provide the information most people need to make good decisions about the food they eat.

While it’s easy to see why the USDA and the first lady wanted to streamline the process of choosing your food as much as possible for Americans with busy lives, MyPlate may be too simplified. Based purely on the visual of the plate, it would seem that, as long as you fulfill the proper portions requirement, anything you choose is fair game: there’s no differentiation as to what’s best within in each food group.

For example, while MyPlate recommends about a fourth of your plate consist of protein, not all proteins are created equally and some are healthier than others. Harvard outlines how red and processed meats are unhealthy compared to proteins such as fish, poultry and beans.

Despite years of scientific research and reporting, there continues to be a disparity between what we know to be healthy and the actual quality of the food we produce. A paper, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2010 and conducted by doctors from the National Cancer Institute, concluded that the quality of the current U.S. food supply is insufficient to meet federal recommendations.

This information is all readily available, but often densely packed. The Internet is filled with helpful and relevant health information, but as the first lady notes, most people don’t have the time or interest to track that information down and implement it. Graphics like MyPlate are created for their ease of use and understanding.

While the goals of MyPlate are well-intentioned and admirable, it glosses over crucial information about dietary health. The easiest way to communicate what foods are healthy may not be in a colorful graph or chart, but in old-fashioned education. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Health, middle school students instructed in a comprehensive healthy lifestyle education program showed improvement in their eating behaviors and perhaps most promisingly, the kids felt more confident in their ability to eat healthily.

Published on Monday, June 20, 2011 as: MyPlate guidelines visually attractive, lacking information