The 200 Million Dollar Question

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Remember last week House Republicans, led by Rep. John Boehner, staged a prime-time temper tantrum arguing they couldn't tolerate spending $200 million on contraceptive coverage, which they reported was part of the stimulus plan? Democrats capitulated and contraception was gone. Now, it turns out there never was a $200 million budget request for contraception included.

Rep. Boehner made a huge "mistake," one that conveniently served his interests, and that he didn't step up to correct. A week ago today he stood on television and announced that the stimulus package included hundreds of million of dollars for contraception, on Meet the Press he was more specific saying it would be "over $200 million." Ever since that dramatic press conference, policy experts have been searching for any mention of such an expenditure. Rep. Henry Waxman called Boehner's office seeking their source on it, but Boehner's office is not forthcoming. That's because the budget item didn't exist. There is a $200 million figure that appears in the stimulus package for contraception: it refers to the projected cost savings to the states in five years. Good thing the package didn't include mention of the $700 million it was projected to save states in ten years. One could only imagine the outrage then.

The media perpetuated the Congressman's self-serving blunder. They used Boehner as an unimpeachable source, not checking to see if his figure was correct. Turns out Boehner is impeachable. The inclusion of contraception in the stimulus package was not a budget allocation but instead a proposal to insert more government efficiency into the process; streamlining the states' cumbersome application process for Medicaid waivers for family planning services. According to actual documentation by the Congressional Budget Office, in the first three years the provision would not cost more than 50 million each year. They project that after the third year, it costs nothing and the savings to the states would total more than 100 million each year. That's $200 million in savings by year five. $700 million in savings by year ten.

Currently under Medicaid the federal government acts as if pregnancy is cheaper than preventing it. According to the experts, who have been excluded from this debate, the provision in the stimulus package would have allowed every woman who is already eligible for Medicaid coverage for pregnancy-related care, to be eligible for pregnancy prevention care too. Just under half the states have already requested and received waivers to do exactly this --14 even during the Bush administration. Changing the law would have simply made it much quicker and easier for additional states to expand their Medicaid programs in this way, and for states already with expansions to renew their programs.

Mary Jane Gallagher, President and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, wrote on RH Reality Check,

Right now, Medicaid - the government's way of paying for health care for low-income women and men - provides funding for pregnancy-related care for women whose incomes are up to a certain percentage of the federal poverty level (roughly $17,600 for a family of three). The provision that was stripped out of the House bill would have allowed states to provide family planning services to anyone who, based on their income, would be eligible for pregnancy-related care under Medicaid. In other words, if you would qualify for pregnancy-related care under Medicaid, you would also qualify to access family planning services, including contraceptives, if you do not wish to become pregnant.

So, a good question for the media to ask Boehner now: "Where did you get the $200 million dollar figure on how much the provision would cost? And when he's unable or unwilling to answer that, the follow-up question should be, "Why didn't you correct this mistake? Why did you let it get this out of hand?"

It remains to be seen whether the shock media still perpetuating the story will become as apoplectic about being misled. Will Chris Matthews, who compared offering poor women access to contraception to the coercive forced abortion laws in China, inform his viewers of this news? Will Curtis Sliwa, who appeared on Sean Hannity's show to announce that making contraception more accessible is part of Nancy Pelosi's plan to "eliminate minority populations," be swayed by the truth? Will Neil Cavuto re-examine his proposal to encourage unwanted pregnancy because, "You want more people eventually in this country paying into social security because you have more people retiring."

We know the answer to those questions. The one question that does remain is "Will Boehner get away with brazenly misleading the public on this issue." Hopefully some real journalism will emerge to answer this question.

This post originally appeared on RH Reality Check--Information, commentary and community for Reproductive Health and Justice.