Utah lawmaker calls out ‘lack of sympathy’ for women’s medical needs as Senate passes bill expanding Medicaid coverage

SB128, sponsored by Sen. Derek Kitchen, increases how many Utahns could seek family planning services.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, pictured in 2019, sponsored a bill in the 2021 general session that would expand Utahns' access to family planning services through Medicaid. The Senate voted 18-9 Feb. 17, 2021, to send it to the House.

Before casting her vote, Luz Escamilla told her fellow lawmakers Wednesday that she found it “heartbreaking that there’s no sympathy to women” who need contraception to treat many medical conditions.

“What’s a little bit frustrating, we’re outnumbered here by men, and it’s difficult sometimes I think for some senators, respectfully, to understand the pain behind some of these medical illnesses,” said the Democrat from Salt Lake City.

While a couple of her peers took offense at Escamilla’s comments, a majority joined her call to pass SB128, which would allow more Utahns to access family planning services through Medicaid. The Senate voted 18-9 to send the bill on to the House.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, filed a similar bill last year, which made it out of the Senate but died on the House floor on the last day of the session. His current legislation extends family planning services, which includes counseling, medical diagnosis, preventative care and reversible contraceptive methods, to Medicaid patients whose income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. It does not include abortion.

Kitchen estimates his bill would increase access for about 11,000 Utah women, with the largest affect on rural parts of the state and those who “are the most vulnerable.”

“This is giving women an opportunity to not only increase their quality of life, but to empower them to make decisions and to be as healthy as possible,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he worried about language in the bill that says if a patient is a child, family participation is encouraged “in the decision of the minor to seek family planning services.”

“My concern is that this would allow a minor child, against the will of their parents, to get family planning services,” Bramble said.

Kitchen said that Utahns under the age of 18 already have access to these services, and his bill just expands Medicaid eligibility. Escamilla added that the number of children who participate in this program “is very small.”

“You’re not voting for 13-year-olds and 12-year-olds to walk by themselves to Planned Parenthood to get contraceptives,” Escamilla said, after Bramble referred to the health care provider. “This is about real, medical issues, women accessing care ... so they can have better opportunities in our community and our society.”

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, said he was voting against the bill because he shared Bramble’s concerns.

“I kind of resent the idea that this is about me repressing women when it’s about allowing contraceptives without parent approval. I resent the allegation. And I vote no,” Johnson said.

Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, who voted in favor of Kitchen’s bill in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee earlier this month and again on Wednesday, said, “I think women are outstanding, amazing. I have five daughters. I was born of a woman, raised by a woman, taught by women in school.”

He went on, “This is a great body of people. And to Senator Escamilla, I deeply respect you. I’d also just say just because I’m a man, the idea that I don’t respect or don’t appreciate the difficulties that women face, particularly as a doctor, it’s difficult for me to swallow. And I’ll just say, with all due to respect to you, as well as every woman that has blessed my life through the course of my life, I seek to always do justice to the ladies of my life.”

The medical care outlined in Kitchen’s bill is about educating women and girls to “advocate for themselves and have a healthier lives,” Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said in support of SB128.

As a nurse practitioner and owner of Eastern Utah Women’s Health in Price, Danielle Howa Pendergrass said she serves many patients who grew up in intergenerational poverty and now work in the fast food, hospitality and child care industries. They often fall through the gap, not being able to afford insurance through their provider or through the insurance exchange.

“Living in and on the fringes of poverty, many of these women simply cannot afford to purchase the contraceptive method they want or need,” she told the committee that heard Kitchen’s bill earlier this month.

Pendergrass also serves girls under the age of 18, and contraceptive methods are “basic health care” for them to treat painful periods, menstrual migraines, acne and other conditions, she said.

“What access to contraceptives does do for women, is provide them with a way to care for themselves in order to attain the goals they have set for their futures,” she said. “No woman should have to make the choice to feed, shelter and clothe themselves or their families in order to purchase insurance for medication.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.