April 30, 2020

Planned Parenthood sees increase in those seeking access to abortion through telemedicine

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more people are seeking abortion through telemedicine than ever before in New Mexico.

Though the numbers are still small, the increase is significant, according to Neta Meltzer, director of strategic communications at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM). Meltzer wrote in an email that prior to the public health emergency, PPRM enrolled 10 patients from New Mexico into the study over the course of about a year. But in March of 2020 alone, the nonprofit screened 14 patients who were interested, and enrolled eight in that month.

“The need for abortion care does not disappear in the midst of a global pandemic,” Meltzer wrote. “We have seen a huge increase in interest over the past month, a result of both stay at home orders as well as restrictive laws in Texas.”

Telabortion is a type of telehealth. Through the study, people in New Mexico can take the pills mifepristone and misoprostol at home. The patient has to see a provider before receiving the pills and then again after taking the medication. A person has to be less than 10 weeks pregnant to qualify. Only people living in New Mexico and other states where the study is taking place can apply. New York-based nonprofit Gynuity Health Projects started the study in certain states in 2016. Gynuity Health Projects added New Mexico in March of last year.

Related: TelAbortion could ease access woes

Meltzer said that since January, the organization has seen three times the normal rate of inquiries and enrollments. Compared to February, PPRM has seen about double the amount of people interested in the study.

Meltzer said PPRM has also had “many calls from patients in Texas, some who have traveled to New Mexico to participate in the study.”

Texas’ abortion regulations have ricocheted back and forth since around mid-March, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, banned abortion except to protect the life of the mother until April 22. Abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, sued. Some courts sided with Texas and some sided with the abortion rights groups, making obtaining a legal abortion in Texas difficult during a four week time frame. The clock ran out on the ban earlier this week and Texas agreed to allow abortion to resume, while still restricting some other medical procedures.

The reason why accessing abortion through telemedicine must be administered through a study, unlike most telemedcine, is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the distribution of mifepristone. In order to prove to the FDA that taking the pill at home is safe, Gynuity Health Projects created the study and is collecting data through it. The FDA requires considerable data to relax its regulation on the drug. But abortion rights advocates say the safety of mifepristone, which has been used for medication abortion for two decades, is well known and that the drug is still restricted by FDA because of politics.

Because of the rural nature of the state, many abortion rights advocates have said using telemedicine could help ease the difficulties for people who have to travel long distances for an abortion. Issues such as travel cost, taking time off from work and childcare add barriers for people who live in rural areas when seeking abortion care. But the state’s Medicaid doesn’t cover it, according to one senior researcher at Gynuity Health Projects. That could explain why the amount of people interested in the study was low before the pandemic began. The state’s Medicaid does cover abortion that takes place in a clinic.

Meltzer said Planned Parenthood also developed an app to help those seeking UTI treatment and birth control during the pandemic. Planned Parenthood hopes to expand it to other services in the future.

“We hear the struggles our patients share with us as they attempt to access care, some of them traveling across state lines for hours at a time when we are being encouraged to stay home to keep ourselves and each other safe. This is a time to make healthcare more accessible, not less,” Meltzer wrote.

Related: Access to abortion limited in NM

 Meltzer said it’s important to remember that abortion care is essential.

“The impact of delaying services like wellness exams will become clear in the coming months and years. But for patients seeking abortion care, the impact is immediate. Abortion care cannot be delayed,” she wrote. “Providing access through telehealth services is a critical way in which we can provide the high-quality, affordable care our communities deserve.”

Correction: This story was changed on May 14 to reflect the following change: the Planned Parenthood app does not help with finding abortion providers, as previously stated, but helps users find services for UTI treatment and birth control. Planned Parenthood hopes to expand it to other services in the future.