HELENA — At Flathead Family Planning Services in Kalispell, some 3,200 people — many of them without health insurance or much money — visit in a year to get physical exams, contraception, pregnancy tests and other reproductive health care.
Yet the Republican majority in the Montana House has voted to cut nearly all federal and state family-planning funds from the state health care budget, lopping a sizable chunk of money from the budget of the Kalispell center and 13 other similar clinics around Montana.
"There is no way we'd have the capacity to take on the extra 3,200 women we'd have to see if we didn't have the family-planning clinic," said Wendy Doely, who directs both the family-planning clinic and an adjoining community health center. "I think that's probably true in every corner of the state."
The Montana House voted 53-47 Friday to remove $4.7 million in federal family-planning funds from the state budget for the next two years — money that's been in Montana's budget for decades.
Earlier, House and Senate Republicans also voted to remove $1 million in state funding for contraception — money that goes to the same clinics — and rejected a Schweitzer administration proposal to spend another $1.2 million in state and federal funds to make contraception available to low-income Montanans.
The House-approved budget bill now advances to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 28-22 majority.
State health officials say the federal family-planning money helps fund services for nearly 28,000 people statewide last year, most of them low-income women.
"This (budget cut) is an attack on women," said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. "Family-planning clinics are where many low-income women get their primary (health) care."
Those proposing and supporting the purge of family-planning funds from the state budget say it's not a good use of taxpayer money — and that now is not the time to spend tax dollars wastefully.
"I think (family planning) is a matter of personal responsibility," said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, who proposed removing the state funds. "There are so many other priorities to take care of."
Some also say they're voting to remove the funds because a good chunk of the money goes to Planned Parenthood of Montana, which performs abortions.
"There are a lot of people out there who don't like their tax dollars going to Planned Parenthood," says Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, a vocal opponent of abortion. "When we're having to make really tough cuts in other areas, I think they would resent their tax dollars going to Planned Parenthood."
Planned Parenthood, the most prominent abortion provider in Montana, receives about half of the $5.7 million in state and federal family-planning money, for use at its health clinics in Billings, Missoula, Helena and Great Falls.
By law, none of that money can be used for abortions or abortion-related services. The other Montana clinics receiving the money do not perform abortions.
The family-planning money accounts for one-sixth of Planned Parenthood's budget in Montana, and goes for contraception and other services, such as health exams and testing for cervical cancer, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, said Stacey Anderson, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Montana.
Anderson and clinic managers say many women who use family-planning services can't afford care elsewhere.
They argue that the funds prevent abortion and save money, by providing contraception that prevents unwanted pregnancies, which could lead to a birth covered by publicly funded health programs.
"You're going to pay for birth control, or you're going to pay for someone to have a baby," said Stephanie McDowell, associate director of Bozeman's Bridger Clinic, which sees 5,700 people a year and gets about one-fourth of its funds from the family-planning money.
Rep. Carolyn Squires, D-Missoula, a retired nurse who voted against cutting the funds, said she doesn't understand why abortion opponents would vote to cut off funds for contraception.
"If you're going to complain about having so many abortions, why take out the agency that can provide you with contraception?" she asked. "People who find themselves on limited income aren't able to access (contraception)."
Warburton, however, doesn't buy the contraception-prevents-abortion argument.
She said the rate of abortion has not dropped dramatically despite continued public funding of contraception.
In Montana, the number of abortions peaked in 1982 at 4,175, gradually dropped to around 2,200 in 2002, but has been holding steady since.
"After decades of giving Planned Parenthood billions of dollars (nationwide), they have not changed those numbers," Warburton said. "It certainly doesn't justify giving them more taxpayer money."
Warburton also noted that Republicans in Congress have voted to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Last week's vote to cut off the funds in Montana was a way for House Republicans here to show support for that effort, she said.