As providers in Maryland await a ruling from the Supreme Court that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, they will be expanding access to contraception and other family planning services that could prevent unwanted pregnancies.
State health officials announced Tuesday that Maryland will receive a nearly $700,000 federal grant to enhance telehealth services at family planning sites.
The so-called Title X money can’t be used directly for abortion services but will go to specific health departments and providers participating in a program for underserved areas across the state where women face barriers to accessing care.
“Through telehealth we can provide contraception, emergency contraception, counseling on pregnancy,” as well as treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, gender-affirming care and other health needs, said Karen Nelson, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
“This new money will go to preventive health care,” she said. “Some would say that’s preventing abortions.”
The money is separate from other steps providers have been taking for months in anticipation of a court decision that could allow states to outlaw abortion. A formal ruling is expected in the coming days.
Telehealth appointments separately figure into those plans in Maryland, where abortion is legal until the fetus is viable, usually around 24 weeks, and beyond to protect the life or health of women, or if the fetus has an anomaly.
In those telehealth appointments, Planned Parenthood and other providers can offer prescriptions for abortion medications that can be taken at home and are used now in an estimated half of the nation’s abortions.
The state expanded access to telehealth services generally during the pandemic, but demand is expected to increase at abortion clinics if the court overturns the Roe precedent and an estimated half of U.S. states ban all or most abortions.
The telehealth services largely would be used for clients living in Maryland, as providers can’t see patients in states where they do not hold a license. But providers have said that would free up in-person slots for those traveling to Maryland for abortions.
Maryland lawmakers also passed legislation this year expanding who could provide an abortions to include nurses and physician assistants. They already could write prescriptions for abortion medications.
The Morning Sun
Nelson and other abortion providers say there already has been an increase in women traveling to Maryland since a leaked draft of the decision overturning the 50-year-old Roe precedent in early May and some states passed newly restrictive laws.
In addition to adding to the workforce and expanding telehealth services, groups including the nonprofit Baltimore Abortion Fund have been raising money to provide financial assistance and assistance to people who live in or travel to Maryland for an abortion service.
But Planned Parenthood‘s Nelson said the new telehealth funding will be crucial to expanding a variety of reproductive health and other health care services, including some for needs that went unmet during the coronavirus pandemic.
The group will work with state health officials to develop a roadmap for other providers and health departments that participate in the Maryland Family Planning Program to offer telehealth services. Specifically 62 providers and 11 health departments will be awarded funds over the next year, but all providers will have access to a “toolkit” that outlines procedures and resources necessary to offer telehealth visits.
The Maryland Department of Health said the state’s program was among 31 across the country to get the federal health funds.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health, said the funds would increase access for low-income residents who have barriers to family planning and preventive health services. That includes people who lack transportation or child care but also those who want to avoid trips for health care during the pandemic.
“This funding will not only strengthen the capacity to reach clients and patients where they are, using phones, computers, and other digital devices, it will help us accelerate outreach to residents, encouraging them to get back on track with care and screenings they may have put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chan said in a statement. “When telehealth services are widely available and easy to access, residents will likely feel more comfortable making and keeping appointments.”