08/04/10 — WATCH debates teen pregnancy, birth control

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WATCH debates teen pregnancy, birth control

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 4, 2010 1:46 PM

Education and access to birth control would greatly help reduce teen pregnancy rates in Wayne County, Health Director James Roosen said.

The economics of the teen pregnancy problem impact the entire community, Roosen recently told the board for WATCH, Wayne Action Teams for Community Health.

"How much is it costing us, what does it mean to these kids when they have a baby at 16, 15, whatever?" he said.

Roosen said he is working toward forming a task force to brainstorm ideas and approaches to the epidemic. He is already aware that other countries are having a better success rate.

"If you look at European countries, their rates are one-fourth to one-seventh of that of the U.S.," he said. "They do a much better job of educating. They talk to the kids about sex, what it means, how to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

"The last time we went through the school system, 60 percent (of high school students surveyed) said they had sexual intercourse at least once. Are we any different than any other part of the state? No. But the problem is that birth control is not accessible. Education, access to birth control are two key things."

As much controversy as the topic stirs up, Roosen said he believes that even parents should agree that if teens are having sex, they should have access to birth control.

"Sweden has much better access to birth control and they begin talking to kids at about fifth grade," he said. "(Youth) wait a year and a half after ours (to have sex) -- ours start about 15, theirs start about 18."

Roosen disputes the notion that if young people are educated on the subject, they will immediately go out and have sex.

Board member Jack Best asked if WATCH, which sponsors a free clinic that serves underinsured and uninsured around the county, hands out birth control to kids.

Sissy Lee-Elmore, executive director of WATCH, said only 10 percent of its patients are under 18. And typically, she said, youth do not access the clinic for that purpose.

It could happen, though, she noted.

"We can pass out condoms if given board approval," she said. "We can't come on school campus and do it."

She asked the board members to share their feelings on the issue and how WATCH might respond to youths requesting condoms.

"We're the free clinic, but if it gets out that we give free condoms or do birth control, how do you all feel about that?" she asked.

Best's initial concern was over youths on Medicaid who become dependent on the government for the rest of their lives.

"What does it really cost? Handing out a few pills and a few other prevention things is no big deal," he said. "In WATCH we might not want to do it but that's really part of the health of our children. I would be for it as a county commissioner."

"If you do this, you're probably going to create a larger client base, too. Will that be a problem?" board member Sam Hunter asked Mrs. Lee-Elmore.

She said that there is a conflict involved, primarily in the area of insurance. The program caters to those lacking insurance and Medicaid patients at this point are ineligible for the service.

"We're still a free clinic," she said. "We say now that don't accept Medicaid patients. If we did, it would only be for that particular thing. ...

"We don't want to be known as a 'sex truck,' certainly, or the 'not sex truck.' There's concerns. I need to know what's the board's preference."

Board member Harold Brashear suggested that WATCH providing access to birth control could be considered a "pretty big community service."

"It's kind of clear if we don't hand them out, they're still going to be having sex," he said. "I don't think that offering free condoms would be offering an endorsement. It would be part of our mission to be out there doing that."

"Handing out condoms, we can do the condoms but not birth control pills," Mrs. Lee-Elmore pointed out. "You're getting into something different. (Birth control pills are) going to require a physical exam, which is provider services."

Hunter said he would feel more comfortable voting on the issue if it came in the form of a written proposal.

William Paugh, CEO of Wayne Memorial Hospital, which governs WATCH, agreed it could be a potential "lightning rod issue" but said he would be interested in investigating it further.

Mrs. Lee-Elmore proposed the subject be put on the agenda for the board's October meeting.

"I would like to see you come back with a proposal," Brashear said. "It could definitely be framed in terms of being prevention efforts for teen pregnancy and wouldn't draw as much criticism."

The Health Department already gives out about 7,600 condoms each month, Roosen said.

With the support of other agencies, he said, perhaps the climbing pregnancy rates could start coming down.

"I think the best thing to do is develop a good strategic plan involving a variety of people who have already had their hands on these kids and then get the entire community involved. I have got the Health Department over here, WISH, the school system, WATCH. What we need to do is get one plan, talk about our issues, about how to get access to birth control plus good education -- that's going to start in seventh grade in August," he said, referencing the state-approved expanded education curriculum being rolled out this school year.