As a practicing physician for 32 years, I have dedicated my life to the health and well-being of people worldwide. I moved to California in 1984, focusing my Ob/Gyn practice on our community here in Santa Barbara. Every year I see hundreds of patients at all stages of cancer treatment and recovery. This commitment to my practice and patients make it all the more disheartening and disturbing to see politics threatening health care access for people in our state — especially those who already have the least access to health care.
Last week Republican leadership and the White House tried to jam through a bill that would have cut millions of women off their health insurance, ended access to Planned Parenthood, and threatened maternity care and family planning. It is thanks to champions like Congressmember Salud Carbajal in the House, and women and men across the country rising up, that we were able to protect health care for millions and protect access to Planned Parenthood.
I know firsthand that Planned Parenthood health centers are an irreplaceable resource for lifesaving cancer screenings, prevention, and referrals for women in California. Planned Parenthood’s health centers nationwide provided 635,000 cancer screenings in 2015, including more than 360,000 breast exams and more than 270,000 Pap tests, and are critical for early detection and ensuring that patients are connected to any follow-up care they need right away. Without Planned Parenthood, many patients would have nowhere else to go for care.
As a physician, I know that screenings save lives. Every year, almost 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 American women die of the disease. Latinas and African-American women have higher rates of cervical cancer than other groups and are also more likely to die of the disease. More than half of cervical cancer cases are in women who have never been screened or in those who haven’t been screened in the past five years. As many as 93 percent of cervical cancer cases could be prevented by screening and HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccination. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the U.S. and has a particularly devastating impact on women of color. That’s why we need to be working together to ensure that more people have access to regular cancer screenings, rather than fewer.
The claims made by politicians that other health-care providers could serve Planned Parenthood patients are false. More than half of Planned Parenthood providers are in underserved areas. The idea that other providers could absorb Planned Parenthood’s patients has been resoundingly dismissed by experts. In fact, Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, has called the idea “ludicrous.”
As a physician, I know what it means when someone is forced to delay or skip preventive screenings because the nearest provider is 100 miles away or won’t take their insurance. It means putting off getting the lump in your breast checked out or skipping your next Pap — it’s the difference between life and death. Blocking patients from getting care at Planned Parenthood health centers would leave millions cut off from lifesaving cancer screenings and other preventive care. Those hurt the most would be communities already having a hard time getting by and those who already face barriers to accessing health care — especially people of color, people with low-to-moderate incomes, and people who live in rural areas.
We know this is the beginning, not the end. The political attacks on Planned Parenthood are very real and will harm the 35,000 patients seen annually in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties who rely on our local affiliate, Planned Parenthood California Central Coast, for care every year. Thank you, Congressmember Salud Carbajal, for standing with us, and I urge you to continue to reject any attempt to cut off millions of women from essential health care at Planned Parenthood.
Dr. Ayesha Shaikh is a practicing Ob/Gyn in Santa Barbara and board member of Planned Parenthood California Central Coast.