PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — In the central Oregon city of Bend, the only planned parenting clinic serving the eastern half of the state is bracing for an influx of patients, particularly from neighboring Idaho, where a trigger law is expected to limit most abortions bans come into effect this summer.
“We’ve already started hiring,” said Joanna Dennis-Cook, manager of the Bend health center.
Across the western United States, many abortion providers serving rural areas have already struggled to meet demand in a vast region where staff shortages and long travel distances pose barriers to women’s reproductive services. Oregon alone is geographically larger than the entire United Kingdom.
Some facilities that serve rural communities in states where abortion remains legal fear that the overthrow of Roe v. Wade could be further tightened as more patients travel from states where the procedure is banned or severely restricted.
In anticipation of an abortion ban in Idaho, Oregon, lawmakers earlier this year created a $15 million fund to improve access to abortion services.
The Northwest Abortion Access Fund, a nonprofit that helps patients pay for their own travel and procedures, was tapped to get the first million dollars. NWAAF has worked with the Bend Clinic for 20 years, and they work together to meet the needs of a growing number of patients.
Dennis-Cook says her clinic is providing additional training for staff and changing schedules “to ensure we can handle an increase in patient numbers” as more people travel further afield for care.
Before the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade picked up, 20% of US women have already had to travel at least 42 miles to reach the nearest abortion clinic, according to 2014 data published by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that advocates for abortion rights, and published its findings in The Lancet Public Health. In much of eastern Oregon, that distance can increase to nearly 180 miles. As more states enact abortion bans, distances could continue to increase for many patients.
Dennis-Cook says the Bend Health Center has seen patients from countries as far away as Texas.
Bend’s clinic has six exam rooms and receives approximately 600 visits per month. Because it’s “on the smaller side,” Dennis-Cook said, it’s “limited” in what it can offer.
“We only do first trimester surgeries here,” she explained. She added that the clinic cannot perform procedures using general anesthesia. “We don’t have an abundance of nurses who can do this type of work that we have to fall back on.”
Smaller abortion clinics, particularly those in rural areas, have historically struggled with shortages of staff and doctors able to perform the procedure. This in turn affects the availability of appointments.
Amid growing demand for travel funds, the NWAAF has already exhausted its projected operating budget for this year, according to Riley Keane, a head of practical support for the group.
“Last year we gave away about $1 million overall,” Keane explained, referring to grants that clinics receive to cover abortion costs and patient travel expenses. She said the NWAAF is “on track to potentially double that” this year.
Keane expects the $1 million from Oregon’s new abortion access fund will make “a big difference” for the NWAAF, which normally relies on individual donors. She says this year marks the first time the group has received government funding.
NWAAF says it is concerned about providing travel funds for patients in states where abortion is banned or severely restricted, but added that it is working with legal experts to assess the changing landscape.
“They keep us informed about things that we have to worry about,” Keane said.
In response to laws like those passed in Texas that allow individuals to sue abortion providers, the governors of Oregon, Washington and California announced a joint commitment to protect patients and physicians “from court and local law enforcement cooperation with extrastate investigations.” , investigations and arrests.”
The three Democratic governors also said they will oppose the “extradition of persons to law enforcement” for obtaining or supporting abortion services that are legal in their states.
The NWAAF’s coverage area includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
Keane says NWAAF will continue its work for now. “Currently, our legal advisors have not told us that we need to shut down operations,” she said.
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