Member Spotlight: South Texas Family Planning & Health Corporation
By Perdita Henry
A key to successful conversations about family planning is realizing that it looks different for everyone. Depending on the phase a person is in their life and their desire—or lack thereof—to parent, their gender, class, race, employment status, and other factors will impact their experience. And while all those things must be addressed in our struggles with the healthcare system, the challenge of access to preventive healthcare, including contraception, remains steadfast.
Being underinsured or uninsured can have a devastating impact on your overall health and the health of your family, and the pandemic hasn’t done anything to help matters. But there are fierce clinics that work to bring healthcare to their communities no matter the hurdles. The South Texas Family Planning & Health Corporation (STFPHC) is doing just that every day.
“Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw almost 20,000 clients in 2020,” STFPHC Executive Director, Martha Zuniga, MPA, says. “We’re proud to continue doing our part as an essential provider by keeping our clinic open to ensure family planning services remain available. We’re one of the few remaining reproductive health safety-net clinics in Texas specializing in family planning and women’s health for uninsured and underinsured people.”
With 11 service locations, which includes six that deliver comprehensive family planning, women’s health, and preventive primary care services, four natural family planning educational sites, and one community-wide health education services project that covers all counties in Public Health Region (PHR) 11, STFPHC touches the lives of thousands of people across Aransas, Bee, Kleberg, Nueces, and San Patricio counties.
“We serve thousands of people each year and deliver free or low-cost services to people in the most effective and efficient ways possible, which allows for quick, convenient, accessible, same-day walk-in care,” Zuniga says.
I sat down to chat with her about the challenges of running clinics that depend on women’s health program funding, the role sexual and reproductive health education play in patients’ lives, and the steps patients have to take when they receive a cancer diagnosis.
You all offer health education to all ages in the communities you serve. From the clinical perspective, what role does sexual and reproductive health education play in a patient's lifelong health?
Family planning plays a significant role in women’s lives. A woman can spend 30-plus years trying to avoid pregnancy versus up to five years trying to achieve pregnancy. That’s why scientifically accurate and age-appropriate sexual health and birth control education, including abstinence, on family planning and how to grow a family responsibly is important.
Everyone’s heard that knowledge is power. From the clinical perspective, we believe that applied knowledge is even more powerful. It’s imperative to know how your body works, so you are aware of when things change; how to keep a simple problem from turning into a critical or untreatable chronic condition; how to manage and control your reproductive system; important factors that if known, can increase the chances of a having a healthy pregnancy and baby; and where to access services when needed. This is all necessary knowledge people must have throughout their life, even if they’re uninsured or have a low-income. Sexual and reproductive health education plays an important role in our lives.
Awareness, facts, and knowledge can change lives for the better! When our society prioritizes talking openly and honestly about the responsibilities of respecting and caring for the sexual being inside each of us and accept the fact that we are all family planners, then we will have a better chance to responsibly grow healthier families.
What are the biggest challenges in running a clinic that focuses mostly on uninsured and underinsured patients?
Helping Texans grow their families healthy and responsibly is everyone’s job. To do that, it requires expertise, understanding, open communication, collaboration, and a willingness to bring all the stakeholders together. Funding, politics, changes made without provider input to the programs, no mechanisms for true communication and involvement, and uncertainty always makes it challenging to serve poor and lower income populations.
In addition, the women’s health programs we deliver have traditionally been held to much higher standards, been more scrutinized, and tend to receive far more oversight than other programs—which are often allocated with much greater resources—even though women’s health programs are highly utilized, incredibly cost-beneficial, and financially justified.
As one of the few remaining reproductive health safety-net providers, key stakeholders (elected officials, state administrators, associations, providers, and clients) must understand the uniqueness and significance of the programs we administer, the importance of supporting and maintaining the few reproductive health safety net providers left in Texas, and the need for a formal venue to openly discuss what really works to make programs successful versus what doesn’t.
If a person utilizing Healthy Texas Women (HTW) is screened for breast or cervical cancer, and tests positive, what are the next steps she must take to be treated?
By coming to STFPHC to get her screenings, she’s already a step ahead. If she was screened elsewhere and had abnormal results that another provider can’t treat or that she can’t afford, she should still contact an STFPHC clinic and we’ll take care of her next steps too.
If she received a pap smear, mammogram, or positive Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) result at STFPHC, we’ll address the issue and take care of her next steps (treatments or diagnostics, radiology, surgical consults, etc.) and cover the cost of those things. We’ll ask her to bring certain documents for program eligibility—and if she got her screening elsewhere any results—then our medical team will take it from there.
We don’t just screen for breast and cervical cancer and positive STIs, we also ensure treatment and see women through the process, even if she ends up needing chemotherapy or radiation.
Besides abnormal results, we also help HTW clients who’ve had contraceptive devices placed by other providers who are no longer in business, who don’t remove devices, or who have trouble removing complicated devices. In our area, we are the specialist for these types of more complicated and comprehensive women’s health services. We accept clients with HTW already and those who don’t have HTW yet. Our staff will help them apply for the program and submit all their paperwork.
Why is it important for your organization to be a TWHC member?
TWHC has been an important voice in Texas for uninsured, under insured, low-income women, and the providers who serve them. We’ve been able to make connections, to work with our colleagues, and to express both ours and our clients’ needs and concerns. In the Coalition, our input is welcomed.
As providers, we will continue to advocate for a formal advisory council, workgroup, or committee that is specifically for state providers who deliver both women’s health services and Title X. Right now, TWHC remains the sole Coalition able to focus on and navigate us through the Texas legislative and administrative processes that are directly associated with our programs. The TWHC team is tremendous, and I truly appreciate the work they do to help us better understand what’s changing, alerting us when something new is looming, and their ability to clarify programmatic issues when needed.
What does an ideal future for women’s health look like according to the South Texas Family Planning & Health Corp.?
One where every woman in the world who wants family planning or women’s health services can access convenient, safe, quick, confidential, high quality, free services and methods—including but not limited to Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs)—regardless of where they live, how much they make, what color their skin is, or how much education they have.
In a perfect world every child born would be wanted, planned, loved, welcomed, and nurtured by parents who were financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to handle the responsibilities of parenting because the technology, education, and care to achieve such were widely available and easily accessible to all.