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WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL FILE PHOTO

Legislation targeting Planned Parenthood's funding in Wisconsin was the subject of a heated debate among lawmakers on Wednesday. Democrats say the pair of bills before the Assembly Health Committee would restrict access to reproductive health services throughout the state, while Republicans argue just the opposite.

Up for debate are two bills introduced by Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere. The first would prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving federal Title X funds, diverting the money to other groups at the discretion of the state Department of Health Services. The second would place limits on how much Planned Parenthood can be reimbursed for prescription drugs acquired through a Medicaid program.

A public hearing dedicated to the two bills began at 9 a.m. Wednesday and was on track to last for several hours, with legislators sparring minutes after the discussion started. 

Together, the bills would take from Planned Parenthood an estimated $7.5 million in federal funding. Jacque said the result will be more resources for a broader network of health care providers serving all Wisconsinites' interests, not just those of one interest group.

"This is clearly legislation that is going to help family planning and the broad array of preventative public health services," Jacque said.

Asked whether he has any concerns that the bills would curb health care access for some who currently use Planned Parenthood's services, Jacque said, "Not at all."

"I don’t believe that this bill is going to do anything but to help and broaden the array of health care providers used," he said. "Essentially, right now, Planned Parenthood has a monopoly on Title X funding. If we believe Planned Parenthood has the entire state of Wisconsin’s best interests in mind for the prevention of communicable diseases and public health, I don’t know why we have a state Department of Health Services — we should just use Planned Parenthood."

Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, said she has "grave concerns" about diverting Title X funds, noting that one of the new designated recipients, the Wisconsin Well Woman Program, only serves women ages 45-64 — not men or younger women in need of reproductive health services.

Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said the bill would fund additional access for women's health because it would be directed at "all women, not just a select group."

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, said she doesn't see a plan from the bill's authors or DHS  to ensure the level of services currently offered through Title X funding is maintained. Jacque argued that the absence of a Planned Parenthood clinic doesn't equate to an absence of health care access.

Zamarripa said the bill would limit access to family planning services, "especially for low-income women, men and teens."

"I'd love to see a statistic on the percentage of men helped at Planned Parenthood," Kapenga said. "I’m not real concerned about that."

Zamarripa said about 6,300 men are served each year. Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin offer referrals, exams and education for several men's health issues, as well as distribution of condoms.

Gov. Scott Walker has touted his elimination of Planned Parenthood's state funding on the presidential campaign trail. A frequent applause line as he courts Republican primary voters is his boast that Wisconsin defunded Planned Parenthood several years ago, long before the release of a controversial series of undercover videos that has reignited a push at the national level to cut the organization's federal funding. Walker has said he supports efforts like Jacque's to further restrict the organization's funding. Jacque is also the author of a bill that would ban research conducted with aborted fetal tissue.

Jacque's bill would bar the state from giving any federal Title X dollars to organizations that perform abortions. Federal law already prevents the money from being used for abortions.

"You know federal tax dollars are not used to provide abortions," Zamarripa said to Julaine Appling, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action.

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"I know that a law says that's what's supposed to happen," Appling replied.

Appling argued that cutting off Title X funding doesn't mean the end of Planned Parenthood. If Planned Parenthood wants to offer abortions, she said, it should seek private funding to stay in business.

"We sometimes talk about low-income people as if they have low intellect and that these folks don’t know where to go to find care," Appling said. "I think that's inappropriate … What we seem to think is that if Planned Parenthood somehow does not get this $3.5 million, these poor souls aren’t going to know where to go."

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has been the direct recipient of Title X funds for more than 35 years. A portion of those funds are distributed to a total of 18 health centers across across the state, including 9 non-Planned Parenthood health centers. According to the organization, about 50,000 men and women are served under the funding stream each year.

Five Planned Parenthood clinics have closed since state funding was cut off in 2011, none of which provided abortions. The organization said Jacque's pair of bills would "devastate" Planned Parenthood and other safety-net health care providers.

"Families in Wisconsin are suffering, especially in the more rural parts of our state, struggling to access affordable preventative care at the community level. It is time for politicians in Madison to stop the vendetta against Planned Parenthood and start supporting women," said Tanya Atkinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

Eliza Cussen, chairwoman of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, said the Title X bill "threatens access to a woman’s legal entitlements and needlessly interferes with a doctor’s job."

Jacque's second bill would allow family planning clinics to bill Medicaid only for the actual acquisition cost plus a dispensing fee for prescription drugs obtained through Medicaid's 340B program. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.