Texas Disables Problem-Riddled Health Provider Website But Still Has No Answers on Access to Care

Last week, the Texas Health And Human Services Commission disabled the problem-riddled online provider search function on its Texas Women’s Health Program (TWHP) website, which has, for months, directed low-income women seeking pap smears and contraceptives to call endoscopy clinics and pediatric offices which do not offer these services.

Now, when women log on to TexasWomensHealth.org in search of a doctor, they’re directed to call a 1-800 number so that an operator can help them find one, a method that one HHSC employee testified in court has been completely effective.

“We’ve been able to find every single woman who calls a provider,” testified Michelle Harper, a policy advisor at the HHSC, during a January 11th hearing regarding Planned Parenthood’s most recent lawsuit filed over its exclusion from the new Texas Women’s Health Program. Texas state court judge Stephen Yelonosky ruled that day that, while he believes injury is being done to Texans who are no longer able to receive WHP care from Planned Parenthood, he could not grant the provider a temporary injunction that would allow it to remain in the program because of the low likelihood that Planned Parenthood would succeed at trial in the future.

Harper testified that she did not know how many women had called the hotline seeking references, only that she knew that providers had been found for all of the callers. She testified that the failings of the online search function—which turned up, among others, doctors that did not provide family planning services, ambulatory surgery centers, and doctors not even enrolled to be WHP providers in the first place—were due to the fact that the HHSC “ended up being over-inclusive.”

RH Reality Check twice investigated the HHSC’s provider search, first in May 2012 and then again in September 2012, with remarkably similar results, alerting the HHSC to problems with the search function both times. And both times, RH Reality Check was told by HHSC press representatives that the department was working on fixing the system.

When reporters at the Dallas Morning News found the same problems with the site earlier this month, the HHSC finally disabled the search function and told the Dallas paper on Tuesday that it is “working on the website look up list to make it more useful for women searching for a new provider.” A spokesperson said last Tuesday that a new list will be up within the week.

If the HHSC has had the ability to fix its WHP provider listings in a matter of few days, why didn’t it do so when it first became aware of the problem eight or more months ago?

Are the long-standing issues with the web search indicative of real-world issues with the number and nature of health care providers in the WHP? Certainly the HHSC itself would say no. Based on the results of its own survey, the HHSC has said that there are more than enough doctors and clinics enrolled in the Texas WHP to meet demand, even without Planned Parenthood’s participation.

But at least one Democratic lawmaker in Texas is skeptical of the HHSC’s claims. Jessica Farrar, a state representative for Houston, has filed a public information request with HHSC Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek asking in part for the WHP’s provider list and the number of patients those providers are expected to serve.

In her letter, Farrar writes that she doesn’t “anticipate any delay in releasing this information” to her office. Since the HHSC now says it can fix in under a week what it hasn’t addressed over a period of months, that should be no problem at all.

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