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Region’s Planned Parenthood CEO adjusts to new political pressures

Michelle Casey spends a lot of time on the Thruway.

She’s the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, which covers 18 counties on this side of upstate New York.

Casey lives in Rochester, where the agency’s main administrative offices are based. But she regularly travels to the organization’s centers in Buffalo and Syracuse and she keeps an office in all three cities.

The agency was created from the merger, three years ago, of the Buffalo-Niagara Falls and Rochester-Syracuse Planned Parenthood chapters.

Casey joined the organization last September from the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency. She replaced Karen Nelson, who left to take over Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

She spoke to The News following an election season when Planned Parenthood came under attack from Republicans, and President Donald J. Trump said he is willing to sign a bill defunding the group.

Critics decry Planned Parenthood’s willingness to provide abortions on demand. But supporters defend it as a provider of vital health care services and information to patients, often young, low-income women of color.

The agency’s Central and Western New York locations, including five in this region, host more than 30,000 patient visits annually, providing contraceptives, testing for sexually transmitted infections, women’s health care, cancer screening and other services.

“Sixty percent of the people who are served here in a year don’t have any other touches with the health care system,” Casey said in an interview last week at the Buffalo center on Main Street. “And if we were to go away there’s not community capacity to just pick it up.”

Q: What was it like to come into an organization that had just completed a merger?

A: Certainly, I wasn’t directly a part of it, but from what I have heard, there was quite a difference between the two organizations. And merging the business processes and the culture proved to be, I think, more difficult than people originally anticipated. I think there was a fair amount of staff turnover. The CEO who was here took another CEO job of another Planned Parenthood affiliate in Baltimore, where she was originally from. I think in some ways it was really helpful to me that I don’t come from anywhere – that I’m not part of Buffalo or part of Rochester or Syracuse.

Q: Planned Parenthood last year completed a $7 million campaign that raised money for renovations to its Rochester and Syracuse medical centers. Why were those projects needed, and what work, if any, do you plan to do to in Buffalo?

A: That campaign had started pre-merger, which is why it was focused on the Rochester and Syracuse sites. But if you were to visit the Rochester and Syracuse sites, in the clinical space, and visit the Buffalo space, you would see that where the money is needed is in those two places. Because they’re extremely out of date. Where the Buffalo space, and most of our sites in this area – we have five sites in this area – are in really good shape.

Q: Who are the patients served by Planned Parenthood?

A: Sixty percent of the patients that we serve are on Medicaid, the other 40 percent are either commercially insured or self-pay. The women that we see, generally, a large portion of them are low to moderate income. Younger women – a large number of people of color.

Q: Has the Affordable Care Act helped Planned Parenthood’s patients?

A: It’s had a huge impact on the people that we serve. Not only that they can access services here, but that they can access services in a more preventive way. As opposed to waiting until things are in a crisis to address them. One of the key provisions that’s really helped women in their reproductive years is that there’s a no-co-pay contraception, so that impacts 55 million women across the United States.

Q: Republicans are now in position to follow through on their vow to defund Planned Parenthood. How worrisome is that to you, and what are you doing locally to push back?

A: I’m very concerned about that because of our patients. It’s interesting, because 48 percent of Trump supporters don’t want Planned Parenthood to be defunded. So there’s a disconnect there, between people who voted for President-elect Trump and what’s actually happening. What they’re trying to do is make it so that we can’t be a Medicaid provider, which is mind-blowing to me. So if I have insurance, and it’s Medicaid funded, that I can’t come here to Planned Parenthood. Even though it’s guaranteed that I have choice of provider. I think it’s really more of a political agenda of the extremists in that party that don’t reflect the thoughts of the party as a whole. So nationally there will be a legal fight about this. But locally, we’re working with our Assembly people and our senators in the New York state government to see if there’s any possibilities that they could help in case the federal funding drops out.

Q: Were November’s election results a sign that the progressive causes championed by Planned Parenthood are out of favor with the voting public?

A: I don’t consider myself to be a national political analyst. But my own personal view on this would be no, it doesn’t. There were 2.8 million more votes in the country for Hillary Clinton. And the voter turnout in the country was abysmally low. I think the election has done a good thing in that it has woken people up. There’s been a lot of activism fairs and there’s going to be marches the day after the inauguration in multiple cities across the nation. And so people are saying, if something is important to us, we’re going to have to speak up about it.

Q: Planned Parenthood provides “safe, legal abortion. With respect. Without judgment.” But many states are passing restrictions on the procedure. And the Senate is poised to approve a Trump Supreme Court pick. Are abortion rights in jeopardy?

A: I would say yes, I think they are. I don’t think it’s that they are in jeopardy in the next six months, as far as a Supreme Court decision goes. But they have already been under attack in many states across the nation, as you referenced. … In New York state, we have it a little better. In 1970, I believe, they passed something ahead of the Roe decision to make abortion legal in New York state. It’s in the penal code. It does not match Roe, all of the protections that are in Roe. So there has been an effort in New York state to have, it’s the RHA, the Reproductive Health Act, passed. Which would basically codify, in New York state law, the protections in Roe. I think there’s renewed interest in potentially passing that.

Q: When it comes to using services, making contributions and other measures, is this region supportive of Planned Parenthood’s mission?

A: Yeah, I think the region is supportive of the Planned Parenthood mission. We would always like to grow the support, though. I think we have a group of longtime, even multi-generational supporters in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area. So we’re fortunate to have that.

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