Commentary: Family planning coverage is good for taxpayers and families

The evidence has been out for some time that the return on investment is substantial and the potential savings for Utah taxpayers would be significant.

Kate Perelman of Silver Spring, Md., left, with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, holds a sign saying "Notorious IUD" as a play on words with the nickname for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as she, and others, rally in support of birth control access regardless of employer, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, outside the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up a challenge from faith-based groups that object to an Obama administration effort to ensure their employees and students can get cost-free birth control. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Often an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Utah state Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, has spent this summer discussing legislation that would offer low-income Utah women access to long-term contraception under Medicaid. The results? Preventing thousands of unintended pregnancies in Utah each year. What’s more, 90 percent of the costs would be picked up by the Federal government. Utah would pay the remaining 10 percent.

The long-term consequences of this bill are huge. In exchange for covering its tiny share of the costs, Utah’s rate of unintended pregnancies and abortions would drop among low-income women and families, and Utah taxpayers would save money on a host of social service programs like Medicaid and school lunch.

Rep. Ward is hardly breaking new ground here. The evidence has been out for some time that the return on investment is substantial and the potential savings for Utah taxpayers would be significant. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that for every $1 spent on family planning, taxpayers save $4 in social welfare programs over future years. When women and families can plan their pregnancies, they are less likely to remain on state or federal social programs. This benefits everyone.

Washington and Colorado are among 27 states that have passed similar legislation. Both Washington and Colorado realized that effective family planning was unaffordable for many low-income women. As a result, unplanned pregnancies derailed women from finishing school or finding a job and this often meant continued reliance on social programs as well as raising a child in poverty. However, after passing legislation that expanded Medicaid access to contraception, both Washington and Colorado report fewer unplanned pregnancies among low-income women, fewer abortions, and, in addition, Washington has seen a reduction in pregnancy rates for teens. During the 1990’s, six states piloted Medicaid expansions for contraception. Savings ranged from $1.3 million to $30 million annually.

In 2015, Utahns terminated nearly 3,000 pregnancies by abortion. While there are medical reasons for abortion, unintended pregnancy leads to more abortions than anything else. The number of abortions performed in Utah stands to fall dramatically if unintended and mistimed pregnancies are prevented through safe, FDA-approved, long-acting reversible contraception.

How would this work in Utah? Ward’s proposed legislation would expand contraceptive coverage to women who are otherwise not eligible for Medicaid and who earn up to 95 percent of the federal poverty level. This means that low-income women would have access to affordable and effective long-term reversible contraception, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Yes, taxpayers would pick up the initial cost, but preventing unintended pregnancies would result in saving millions for the state overall. And, because Ward’s proposed legislation is not connected with the ACA, Utah can go ahead and act.

Ward’s family planning coverage bill will strengthen Utah families by reducing unintended pregnancy and abortion. It will help women and families move out of poverty. It will save Utah taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

We urge all Utah legislators concerned about reducing Utah’s abortion rate and shrinking government spending to work with Rep. Ward and pass this legislation.

Shelley K. Erickson, Salt Lake City, has a Ph.D. in justice and social inquiry from Arizona State University and teaches at Westminster College in justice studies and the Community Leadership Program. Sarah Marsden is a Salt Lake City resident.