By Jonathan B.
Pro-lifers were excited last February when they found out that Planned Parenthood of Western Washington (PPWW) had decided to shutter their clinic in Longview. But cheer turned to concern when it was later revealed, first in March, then again in July, that the Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners was in negotiations with PPWW to reopen the clinic, and was considering paying their rent, as well as providing other financial sweeteners from their tax-funded treasury.
AIW can now reveal, however, that all negotiations with PPWW and Cowlitz County are dead, and the county has severed all dealings with the state’s largest abortion chain. Commissioner Kathleen Johnson told AIW that there is now no PPWW office in Longview, the county gives no money to PPWW, and there is no relationship of any sort between Cowlitz County and the abortion provider.
It appears that what happened, according to the Commissioner, was that PPWW kept asking for more and more money from the county, reportedly up to $10,000 per year, and then they insisted on offering their high-margin services which the county wasn’t interested in, e.g., birth control, emergency contraception. (As reported on this blog, PPWW makes millions of dollars every year and most of its profits from Take Charge clients and sales of the “Plan B” morning after pill.)
The county, on the other hand, is dealing with an STD outbreak, and high teen pregnancy rates (7th highest in the state), and was looking for a health care partner willing to focus its efforts on those problems. Despite the public image it has so successfully cultivated, PPWW was not sufficiently interested in providing services with that focus, said Commissioner Johnson. She also said they wanted a provider which would care for pregnant women the traditional way, i.e., helping both patients, the mother and the unborn child. As PPWW spokesman Brian Cutler told us in a previous interview, “if a woman plans to keep her baby, she’s probably not going to come to Planned Parenthood.”
AIW spoke with Mr. Cutler about the Longview clinic negotiations. When asked if PPWW was only interested in providing high margin services, and not those being asked for by the community, he said it was “ridiculous, ludicrous.”
“Listen,” he added, “I don’t know where you got this idea that we’re in this to make money. We are a non-profit, a 501c3.” He didn’t, however, dispute the details of the charge.
Show Me The Money
One of the more striking elements of the entire situation has been PPWW’s undisputed claim from the start that it couldn’t afford to keep the Longview clinic open, when it has grown its annual revenue from close to $17 million per year in 2000, to over $32 million now, with $36 million in the bank.
PPWW’s 2006 Annual Report shows a profit of over $1 million on revenue of over $37 million. Their tax return for the previous year showed a $3.3 million operating profit. Yet they were still demanding Cowlitz County cough up first $400/month in rent (or about $5,000 per year), and then $10,000/year.
Christine Charbonneau, president of PPWW, wrote a guest column in the Longview Daily News, dated March 4, 2007, titled “PP forced into tough decision.” In the piece, she explicitly claimed that they had no choice to close the clinic, because they were “unable” to absorb the costs, and even had the temerity to use the opportunity to urge readers to lobby the state to provide PPWW with even more taxpayers’ money.
I asked Mr. Cutler if PPWW had lied to Cowlitz County about its finances.
That was followed by a full one minute silence. Finally he said: “I’m sure people above me in the organization made a careful, well-considered decision. I don’t know.”
(He subsequently explained via email that some of the organization’s $36 million in assets are endowments which are restricted by “by-laws” in how they can be used, though the interest can be used for operations, and it can be and has been borrowed against for clinic construction.)
I also asked about two “inaccuracies” on the the PPWW Longview webpage. First, it still says that it is “temporarily” closed, even though negotiations officially ended by November 2007. Secondly, and more alarming, the webpage says that the Longview clinic offers “Abortion Services”.
I inquired about a year ago whether this was true. The official response from PPWW was that this was a mistake and would be remedied shortly, with gratitude expressed for bringing the error to their attention. I pointed out to Mr. Cutler that PPWW makes much of providing accurate information to its clients, but he responded to both issues that it was simply an innocent mistake and that the organization hadn’t gotten around to updating the page yet.
Interestingly, the first bullet point in PPWW’s 2005 Annual Report was that they had spent thousands of dollars on a new high-tech internet portal which, they bragged, “now gives important, real-time information to more unduplicated patients than the nearly 850 health centers around the country combined.”
Treating the STDs Outbreak
When the Longview clinic closed, PPWW spokesmen suggested this would be a tremendous deficit for the area because of the STD problem. Cowlitz Commissioners George Raiter and Axel Swanson publicly concurred. I asked Mr. Cutler if he could provide any studies or research to back up this assumption, that PPWW’s presence in a community was correlated with declining rates of STDs.
Nothing came immediately to mind, but he did send me via email some statistics which he said showed STD rates going down during the Clinton Administration and up during the Bush era, which has emphasized abstinence. Interestingly, this data showed gonorrhea rates in Cowlitz County jumping from about 15 cases per 100,000 in 2003 to 230 in 2006. Chlamydia rates followed a similar trend. PPWW opened its Longview clinic in 2003.
Finding an Alternative to Drive-By Women’s Health Care
AIW also spoke with Carlos Carreon, director of the Cowlitz County Public Health Department. Mr. Carreon was directly involved in most of the direct negotiations with PPWW last year. While reluctant to speak to the more controversial elements which Commissioner Johnson cited, Mr. Carreon did say that after months of ultimately fruitless discussions with PPWW, it just struck him that there was a much better way to provide residents with high quality health care.
“It was sort of an ‘Oh-duh’ moment,” he said frankly. “That’s not an official health policy term,” he added self-deprecatingly. Instead of trying so hard to fit a square peg in a round hole, he realized it would make far more sense to partner with the Family Health Center, a local non-profit health care provider with full-time M.D’s and R.N’s to serve as the clients’ primary care providers and able to establish a long-term medical relationship.
This contrasts with PPWW’s clinic which would parachute an R.N. once a week from upstate to walk-in clients without any long-term relationship. (Finding a local R.N. willing to work full-time for Planned Parenthood was proving impossible.) “This was just a superior model of care,” he explained.
Mr. Carreon noted that they still don’t have a handle on the source of the STD outbreak, including whether or not it is localized to a certain community, like the prison population, and until they have determined the cause, it’s premature to start talking about the correct cure. For instance, a walk-in PP clinic is not going to have a significant impact on a prison-based STD problem.
In contrast, PPWW’s Brian Cutler told AIW that one of the major reasons for the failure of negotiations with the county was political pressure. “Cowlitz County is a very conservative part of our state,” he said, even though the county voted 56%-40% for Maria Cantwell over Mike McGavick in 2006. “While some of the county commissioners supported our presence in Longview, significant political pressure was applied to keep the doors of our health center there from re-opening.”
Commissioner Johnson strongly disputed this idea. “That’s a very interesting comment,” she told AIW. “The issue for us was always: how could we get the best contract for the services needed in this county (reducing STDs and caring for pregnant mothers). Planned Parenthood was not willing to provide the services we wanted.” She added that the only “political pressure” they ever received was a single citizen who occasionally turned up at council meetings (Jerry Ross) and some pro-life form letters “from Texas”.
“We are just happy that the citizens of Cowlitz County are in some way getting the services they need,” concluded Mr. Cutler.