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POOR WOMEN NEED ACCESS TO FAMILY PLANNING

Gov. Pataki and his Commissioner of Health, Dr. Barbara DeBuono, have curtailed basic family-planning services for poor women -- and they have done so in a way that I believeignores the separation of church and state.

In August, the New York State Department of Health approved the sale of Better Health Plan, a managed-care company that served only Medicaid recipients and therefore is supported by government funds, to Fidelis Care New York, a Medicaid managed-care company owned by New York's eight Catholicdioceses.

Better Health provided a full range of family-planning services. For religious reasons, Fidelis refuses to provide such services or to pay for contraceptive services and other aspects of family planning outside its network.

By law, Fidelis must makereferrals for these uncovered services when requested to do so. But according to a survey by the Center for Reproductive Laws and Policy, this requirement is not always being met. Thus, there is a need for constant monitoring.

Fidelis' new Medicaid clients face other obstacles to family planning. Without widespread educational effort, many women will not know that these uncovered services are available elsewhere. And even when they do know, they may not be able to readily find a physician or clinic that accepts Medicaid.

In essence, New York will be funding an organization whose religiously based policies can only increase unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among the poorest and most vulnerable women in our county.

A recent poll conducted by Zogby International of Utica found that more than 75 percent of New York voters would not want to join a church-run HMO that refuses to provide birth control. And 67 percent think it is a bad idea for the state toenroll poor women on Medicaid in such an HMO.

Simply put, New Yorkers do not want one segment of thereligious community imposing its beliefs on the rest.

Edith Murray Chutkow Clarence

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