Women are struggling to access health care in PA. A new state program could change that.

Pennsylvania state Capitol

As women across Pennsylvania struggle to access health care amid hospital closures, financial insecurity and other barriers, a new state program is pouring millions of dollars into local health organizations working to ensure the commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents receive the services they need.

Health officials in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration recently announced the launch of the Women’s Service Program, an initiative that will provide up to $15.9 million over the next two years for reproductive health groups to provide a range of free health services for pregnant and parenting individuals, including prenatal care and postpartum supports, menstrual health education, and testing for sexually transmitted infections.

“All women deserve comprehensive, empathetic care and counsel — especially when they are pregnant or adjusting to the change of being a parent and caring for a new child,” Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh said in a prepared statement announcing the grant recipients at the end of January. “The Women’s Service Program will support and empower women, promoting good health for themselves and their families by expanding access to health care and educational supports.”

The funding comes as the Shapiro administration works to connect marginalized Pennsylvanians, including those living in poverty, with quality health care. Brandon Cwalina, press secretary at the Department of Health Services, told the Pennsylvania Independent that the Shapiro administration is especially proud of legislation that protects pregnant women who are incarcerated and expands access to potentially life-saving pasteurized donor human milk.

The recipients of the Women’s Service Program include Adagio Health, the Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania, Maternal and Family Health Services, and the Maternity Care Coalition. A minimum of 10% of the grant resources must be allocated to regions where at least 20% of the population has lived below the poverty line for the past 30 years, Cwalina said.

Dr. Linda Snyder, the vice president of family planning at Adagio Health, said the $4.3 million her organization will receive from the new grant will be life-saving funds that she expects will result in women finding the care that has dwindled as hospitals shutter their OB-GYN services or close altogether.

“We used to have two hospitals that did deliveries; we have none now,” Snyder said, referring to Jameson Hospital in New Castle and Ellwood City Hospital, two Lawrence County hospitals that have closed their obstetrics department. “A pregnant woman in Lawrence County cannot deliver in Lawrence County. She has to travel to another county or across the border into Ohio, because we’re very close to Ohio.”

As hospital resources dry up, Snyder said groups like Adagio have worked to fill in the gaps — but filling that space can prove costly and community health groups offering no- or low-cost services simply can’t replicate everything a hospital was offering. The money coming from the state is a crucial step in the right direction when it comes to ensuring residents struggling with low-wage jobs or unemployment, a lack of health insurance, limited transportation and other financial concerns secure the care they need, health care workers said.

Alicia Schisler, the chief of external affairs at Adagio Health, explained the two-year grant will allow her organization to work with partner health organizations in 23 counties in western Pennsylvania to provide prenatal and postpartum education and support, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, menstrual health education, menstrual product distribution, and health screenings for heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. The group will also be able to connect patients with resources to help them with housing, food insecurity, transportation, baby supplies, clinical care, substance use disorders, and behavioral health. Snyder will oversee the new program at Adagio, which the organization is calling Healthy Women for Life.

With the new funding, Snyder said she hopes to break down stigma connected with menstruation by offering educational workshops on menstrual health. Additionally, Adagio will be able to provide period products in each of the counties it serves with funds from the grant, something Snyder said is especially important, considering about 20% of women in college cannot afford period products, according to a recent national study.

The grant will also allow the western Pennsylvania health organization to provide home test kits for sexually transmitted infections and offer rapid testing for STIs, which Snyder and Schisler said is vital as infection rates increase. The numbers of congenital syphilis cases, for example, have risen in Pennsylvania and nationwide, alarming health officials who note that the disease can cause miscarriages, premature births, or infant deaths.

Adagio will offer a wider range of behavioral health services, including mental and emotional well-being checks following birth in an effort to address postpartum depression. Individuals will also be able to call Adagio to connect with a range of community services close to them, such as diapers and food banks and public transportation, Snyder said.

As they provide these services to patients over the next couple of years, Schisler and Snyder said, they hope women will feel far less alone as they navigate a world of stressors. 

“Sometimes you just need someone to reach out a hand and say, Listen, here, come with me. I’m going to show you how this works, I’m going to encourage you. I’m going to give you the support you need,” Schisler said.