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November 3, 2014 at 6:04 AM

Save women’s health, maternity support services in South King County

Dariia Leavitt, 25, is just one among thousands of clients watching closely to see if the Auburn Public Health Clinic remains open next January.

Dariia Leavitt signed up as a maternity support services client in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Dariia Leavitt)

Dariia Leavitt signed up as a maternity support services client at the Auburn Public Health Clinic in 2011. Today, she goes to the clinic for family planning services. (Photo courtesy of Dariia Leavitt)

Her story helps to make the case for why last Friday’s Seattle Times editorial called on elected officials, health providers and women’s health advocates to find about $1.7 million as soon as possible to keep the site open. Without that money or partners, the county will have to close a vulnerable section of South King County’s only standalone family planning clinic in January.

Leavitt first sought help three years ago after her daughter, Eve, was born. At the time, Leavitt had just arrived from the Ukraine, could not drive and spoke little English. After her mother-in-law learned about the Auburn clinic, Leavitt initially signed up as a client for Maternity Support Services (MSS). Thanks to this state program administered by King County, nurses conducted home visits to check on the baby’s health, offered Leavitt tips for better breastfeeding and answered her questions about being a first-time mother.

“It meant a lot to me,” Leavitt said earlier this month in one of the clinic’s meeting rooms, as Eve slept in her arms. The baby “got help when she needed it. We didn’t have to wait until I had insurance or could drive a car, and I didn’t have to borrow any money from anybody because I could afford paying the bill myself.

And even if I didn’t have the money at that time, I could pay the next time,” she added. “You can’t do that at regular clinics. It really helped me. I didn’t have to get a credit card.”

About 10,700 clients in the Auburn area — including women, teens, children and infants — rely on Public Health’s nurses and staff to learn parenting skills and access supplemental nutrition programs. The family planning clinic offers reproductive health services, from cervical cancers screenings to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. If the site shuts down and women can’t drive further to the remaining clinics or find alternative providers, the community will likely have to deal with unintended consequences.

At worst, county officials estimate the number of unintended births could be as high as 576 within a year of the clinic’s closure, costing more than $3 million in Medicaid expenses. As the editorial notes, the loss of the clinic would roll back the county’s recent successes toward reducing the teen pregnancy rate.

Located in a commercial park, the clinic is not much to look at, but it appears to be a popular destination for new parents, women and teens. About 90 percent of clients are walk-ins. A client service specialist helps people sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Other random issues come up, too. That morning, a male client showed up and said he was suicidal. (The staff found a place for him to seek help.) In other words, the clinic is often a first stop for all sorts of people in trouble.

The county is not letting go of this valuable resource by choice. Local, state and federal funding has steadily declined over the years, even as demand has grown for services. For years, Public Health has tried to fill the funding gap. Today, there are no stones left unturned. Employees have agreed to wage concessions, but that’s not enough.

Other counties have long done away with direct services such as family planning, but that does not mean the state’s most populous county should follow.

When Dariia Leavitt recently needed help with her own medical issues, she says she came back to the Auburn Public Health Clinic because the sliding scale fees were reasonable.

She now works part-time as a grill cook at CenturyLink Field on game nights, and her family has health insurance, but she still goes to the clinic for family planning services because she has built a strong relationship with the nursing staff. Convenience is also a huge factor. She does not want to start over again with a new provider.

“I still want to come here to resolve my problems because of the years I’ve been coming here and the good experiences I’ve had here,” she says. “I know that if anything happens with me or my daughter, we have a place to go to. It’s not just hopeless, or looking for a new place, or borrowing money to pay for” higher costs.

Who will step up to the challenge of helping women and mothers like her? Lawmakers, health providers, businesses and foundations should seize this moment.

Here’s some 2013 numbers to keep in mind, courtesy of Public Health — Seattle & King County:

  • Public Health provides 94 percent of Maternity Support Services in King County. The Auburn Public Health Clinic and its two satellite offices in Enumclaw and the Muckleshoot Reservation served 3,000 clients in the MSS and Infant Case Management program.
  • The Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program provides monthly payments to mothers to help them select healthful foods on a limited budget. Auburn and its satellites provide services to 5,600 WIC clients.
  • Family planning reduces poverty, improves health outcomes for women, decreases unintended pregnancy and prevents sexually transmitted diseases from spreading. In 2013, 2,000 clients came to the clinic for such services.

Demographics for the Auburn Public Health Center:

  • 97 percent have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level.
  • 59 percent are people of color.
  • 11 percent are homeless.
  • 42 percent of family planning clients are uninsured.
  • 29 percent of pregnant women served by MSS indicate issues with alcohol and drugs.
  • 9 percent of visits require an interpreter.

Teen pregnancy rates:

  • King County’s teen birthrate among Latinas is four times higher than the birth rate for all King County teens, and is 12 percentage points higher than the national average.
  • South King County is home to nearly 70 percent of teen births despite having less than half the population of King County’s teen girls.

Comments | Topics: auburn, birth control, king county

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