The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources building in downtown Charleston. Photo by Kristian Thacker.

Local clinics that provide tens of thousands of West Virginians with free and low-cost family planning services like birth control pills will get at least temporary relief from what their employees feared was a cumbersome new funding system.

Health care workers from clinics across West Virginia had criticized the state’s previous plan to change its Family Planning Program’s funding system on such short notice. They said the state health department was doing little to support them through the transition.

On Tuesday, officials from the state Bureau for Public Health told health care providers across the state that based on feedback, they would maintain the current family planning funding system and increase data collection to guide future decisions.

Earlier this fall, Mountain State Spotlight reported that the Bureau was preparing to switch how it dispersed funds for a federal program designed to connect low-income residents with family planning services like birth control pills. 

The agency had used a simple contract to make sure over 120 private health centers and local health departments across the state can provide these services. Last July, officials announced plans to phase in a competitive grants system that would have clinics compete for funding by April 2024.

Health department contraception
A variety of contraceptive products offered by West Virginia local health departments. Photo courtesy of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department

Health workers across the state worried about how the change would hurt smaller clinics, some of which were the only places in their counties offering these reproductive health services at a low cost. Employees at the Hardy, Pendleton and Wyoming Health Departments feared that they may lose their funding, potentially leaving immigrant, teenage and uninsured residents in their county without access to affordable contraception. 

The state told its funded family planning clinics that the change was necessary to remain in compliance with federal regulations, but the federal agency overseeing the program said those requirements don’t exist.

The Bureau for Public Health did not respond to questions for this story about why it’s postponing the change, whether it thinks its Family Planning Program is still out of compliance with federal regulations or if the program expects to switch to a grants system eventually.

For Amber Hedrick, the Pendleton County Health Department administrator, the delay came as a welcome relief. Even if the agency eventually switches to a competitive grants model, she said the delay gives her department time to prepare for a change so that residents in Pendleton County can maintain access to affordable contraception.

“It felt like it was going to be such a rush,” Hedrick said.

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.