By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
A bill that would allocate $5 million in taxpayer funds to provide IUDs for low-income teens and young women in Colorado moved through its first House committee Tuesday, garnering the vote of one unlikely supporter — an El Paso County Republican.
Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, said she decided to support House Bill 15-1194 because she wants young girls to stay in school rather than accidentally get pregnant as teens.
“It’s hard for me because I am Catholic,” Landgraf said, referring to Catholic teachings against birth control. “But when it comes down to it, the reduction in abortions, girls staying in school who are hopefully going to go on to college, not getting on welfare, not needing Medicaid – that says everything I needed to hear. So I’m going to vote for your bill.”
Landgraf joined Democrats who passed the bill in the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee by a vote of 8-to-5 on Tuesday evening. The bill moves next to the House Appropriations Committee. If the bill wins in the Democratically-controlled House, it could face rougher seas in the Senate, where the chair of Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, has already tried to label IUDs and other forms of long-acting birth control as abortifacients. Medical experts say IUDs prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in a woman’s uterus and therefore are a form of contraception, not an abortifacient.
But opponents who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing tried to tar the IUD program, linking it inaccurately to abortions, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sterilization programs that would unfairly target girls of color.
One man said he opposed the bill because birth rates and the population overall are declining in Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties. Lawmakers did not press him on whether he supported unintended pregnancies for teen mothers as a method for boosting population.
Health experts did point out that the only people who would get the IUDs would be teens and young women who would choose to have them implanted. Girls under 18 are allowed in Colorado to seek birth control options without a parent’s permission.
IUDs are a reversible form of birth control and don’t cause sterilization. And while long-acting forms of contraception don’t prevent STDs, Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, testified that over the past several years, STDs, abortions and teen birth rates all have declined sharply while a pilot program funded by a private donor has given the free or low-cost IUDs to teens and young women.
At the same time, Colorado lawmakers also have funded programs that encourage teens to wait to have sex. For those who do decide to become sexually active, public health clinics across Colorado have been offering long-acting birth control for the past six years.
Since 2009, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has funded the Colorado Family Planning Initiative with a $25 million grant that helped Colorado officials provide more than 30,000 long-acting birth control devices that they say cut the teen birth rate in the state by 40 percent.
State Medicaid programs pay for many teen births — at an average cost of about $11,000 per birth — and health officials estimate that prevention of unwanted pregnancies saved the state between $49 million and $111 million in Medicaid costs from 2010 through 2012. They say every dollar spent to help low-income teens and young women get IUDs or similar long-acting implants will save $5.85.
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he opposes abortion and supports the IUD bill because it could prevent about 4,300 abortions per year.
“We save a lot of money and we prevent abortions,” Coram said.
As a former school board member, he said he’s also concerned about keeping girls in school and on track to do well in life. He said one-third of girls who drop out of high school cite teen pregnancy as the reason they failed to finish school.
“It’s a great cost to our society. Not only are these young people’s lives changed, but so are their children’s lives,” Coram told fellow lawmakers. “Basically, it’s a sentence to poverty.”
Coram’s co-sponsor, Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, said long-acting forms of birth control are highly effective but expensive up front, which makes them hard to afford for teens and young women who are most at risk for unplanned pregnancies.
She said Colorado is drawing attention from around the U.S. for the 42 percent reduction in teen births since 2009 and that other states want to follow suit.
Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, said while the IUD measure may save money now, she fears that it will encourage teens to be sexually active before they’re ready and she believes the program will cause spikes in depression.
“We’re providing this long-term birth control and telling girls, ‘You don’t have to worry. You’re covered.’ That does allow a lot of young ladies to go out there and look for love in all the wrong places,” Conti said. “I’m wondering if we’re saving our money here to send it out somewhere else.”
Conti also said she fears higher rates of STDs and cited one study from Finland that she said showed links between people who had IUDs and those who had breast cancer.
Wolk of the state health department countered those claims.
“The rate of STDs has not increased. While these devices do not prevent and protect against STDS, we have not seen an increase in STDs,” Wolk said.
He also pointed out that IUDs are available both with hormones and without them. He said young women and their doctors should discuss risks and benefits, and choose birth control options that best suit them.
Wolk also said that in future years as health reform expansion continues, more public and private health insurance programs should cover IUDs and long-acting birth control options for women of all ages.
He said health workers have been surveying providers and health insurance carriers and most “just aren’t there yet.”
“We’ve asked for the $5 million with the intent that we will continue to work with our colleagues … so we can get broader coverage (in future years),” Wolk said.
Opponent Mike Norton, senior counsel for a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom, who said he attended the hearing on behalf of another group called Colorado Family Action, vowed to sue if Colorado lawmakers approve the IUD program. He said Colorado does not allow taxpayer funding for abortions and he claimed that “these are abortifacients.”
“It’s the wrong use of taxpayer dollars,” Norton said. “I can assure you that there would be a lawsuit if this is approved.
Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said her group had never before weighed in on a measure related to contraception. But, she said the evidence is so compelling that the IUD program can help children and families that her group decided to step forward.
“This bill will have an impact not only on health, but also on educational attainment. The program is a two-generation strategy for women and children,” Watney said.
The strong track record of success with the pilot program ultimately persuaded the majority of lawmakers.
“This is a common-sense bill,” said Rep. Max Tyler D-Lakewood. “It makes lives better for young adults. The data are absolutely remarkable. The highest teen birth rates (in the U.S.) are in the South. The highest rates of STDs are in the South. There’s no sex ed there. There’s no ability to get contraception. Abstinence-only (education) leads to much higher birth rates. We’re making our future much better and much stronger for our young people and we’ll save a boatload of money.
“I think there’s been a lot of fear-mongering here today, but I’m very pleased to vote yes.”