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Planned Parenthood to shutter El Paso offices
June 29, 2009

More than 12,000 patients will be forced to look for a new health-care provider after Planned Parenthood Center of El Paso closes its doors forever on Tuesday.

Written by Erica Molina Johnson, El Paso Times


EL PASO -- More than 12,000 patients will be forced to look for a new health-care provider after Planned Parenthood Center of El Paso closes its doors forever on Tuesday.

The organization's interim executive director, Analinda Moreno, announced the shutdown Friday.

"Advising the staff about the closing today was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," she said. "Our patients have always been our first priority, and we are still doing everything we can to provide transfer services. We made this decision with them in mind and in their best interest, and we hope they understand that."

Moreno, who held back tears at times, said financial pressures necessitated the closing.

"There were many factors that came into the decision," she said. "We knew eight days ago that there was just absolutely no other way other than to close. Now our concern is negotiating a smooth transfer for all our patients with their consent, but it has been a challenge trying to contact all of them."

Most of the 11,000 women receiving family planning and reproductive health care have not been informed of the closing or received referrals to another provider.

In addition to its six locations in El Paso, Planned Parenthood cared for about 600 AIDS and HIV patients and about 500 patients at its Sierra Blanca clinic.

Those left in the dark by Planned Parenthood were upset by the unexpected shutdown.

"I never got anything (informing me)," an Eastsider named Diana said. She said she is 31,  but declined to provide her last name because of privacy concerns. She learned about the closing as she arrived at a Planned Parenthood clinic to make an appointment.

"This isn't good at all, especially for people who can't afford a doctor. This is going to affect a lot of people who don't have jobs and were coming here for help. I came because it was cheaper," she said.

The abrupt announcement that Planned Parenthood is closing after 72 years in El Paso caught even health-care providers by surprise.

"I was not aware. They've been a historic presence in El Paso and have carried not only the reproductive services but a large part of women's health care and also branched into support for the HIV and AIDS community as well," said Bill Schlesinger, CEO of Project Vida, which provides health-care services for many low-income and uninsured El Pasoans.

When the organization was founded in 1937 as Mothers Health Center, the planned parenthood movement's founder and controversial women's rights advocate Margaret Sanger visited El Paso to speak about the need for birth control.

Since its founding in El Paso, the organization has been the target for pro-life advocates, though it did not perform abortions in El Paso.

Several of those medical providers listed by Planned Parenthood as alternative-care options for their patients learned Friday that they must soon absorb many of the organization's clients.

Though Schlesinger and other clinic leaders said they were startled, they were ready to begin picking up Planned Parenthood's clients.

"We can absorb patients and I'm pretty sure Thomason can absorb as well, but the issue is more about accessibility than absolute numbers," he said. "It's where they were located. It's the people who knew them and knew of them. Our name recognition is pretty low. Either you know about us or you don't, but everybody knew about Planned Parenthood."

Schlesinger said he was concerned that some of the clinic's former patients might fall through the cracks and have no medical home. "Some people just don't know what's out there," he said.

Dr. Jose Manuel de la Rosa is the founding dean of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso. He said the university's clinics were ready to help.

"We've known that Planned Parenthood was struggling, but we didn't anticipate this would be quite as rapid an announcement as it has been," he said. "The loss of one more provider is a difficulty for the community, but we're ready to try and receive as many as we can."

He said the clinics would work to take in some of the failing organization's primary health care and family planning patients.

"It's going to be a bit of a squeeze for us, but we'll try to accommodate the needs of the community," de la Rosa said.

Dr. Heidi Lyn, an assistant professor in the university's obstetrics and gynecology department, said its OB/GYN clinic should be able to accommodate more women.

She said Planned Parenthood had referred patients with abnormal Pap tests to the clinic for years, making it especially prepared to continue to work with those patients.

Some found it difficult to grasp that the end has come for the organization in El Paso.

"I think it's pretty sad," said Carmen Diaz de Leon, director of the Thomason Hospital Women's Health Center. "They've been around for a long time, so I'm sure a lot of people were depending on getting services from their sites."

She said the center isn't overtaxed and also will be able to see clients from Planned Parenthood. The hospital's women's health centers are in far East El Paso, Diaz de Leon said, but she plans to call state officials to ask permission to also see patients at a location near Thomason Hospital.

Friday's closing announcement was not the first blow Planned Parenthood dealt to the community's health-care system.

The first shock came earlier this month when it decided to shut down its services for AIDS and HIV patients. It provided medical care for about 600 patients with HIV.

"The HIV stuff was not handled well at all," said Skip Rosenthal, executive director of International AIDS Empowerment, which provides support services to the city's AIDS and HIV community.

He said many of Planned Parenthood's former clients were unable to get even medication refills for more than a week. "For at least two weeks the clients were frantic. The doctors were frantic," he said.

Clients were referred to La Fe CARE Center, which provides similar medical services for patients with HIV and AIDS.

Officials from Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, which already is receiving many of the HIV patients left stranded by Planned Parenthood, declined to comment.

The loss of Planned Parenthood comes as the community continues to fight to attract more health-care providers.

De la Rosa said one of the reasons the university is opening a medical school in El Paso this summer is to try to produce doctors who will stay here to practice.

"We're designated as not only a federally underserved community, but in the state of Texas the entire border has less than half the physician-to-patient ratio than the rest of the state," he said. "You can imagine how difficult it is to serve the community, and the loss of any provider just adds to the load and makes it very difficult to care for patients."

Diane Quest, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood nationally, said the organization would like to continue to serve Texas, particularly along the border, and could look for opportunities to return to the area.

Planned Parenthood clients can pick up their medical records at their regular clinic until July 3. From July 7 through Aug. 14, records can be picked up at 2817 E. Yandell.

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