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Colorado's Long-Lasting Birth Control Program For Teens May Not Last Long

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The shelf of long-lasting birth control at Children's Hospital outside Denver. The clinic's director said having the devices on hand is crucial, so young women don't have to make a second visit. But that costs money.

When President Obama spoke to the Democratic National Convention in Colorado seven years ago, he tried to call a truce in one of the nation's long-running social debates.

"We may not agree on abortion. But surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country," he said to applause.

Not long after that, Colorado launched an experiment aimed at doing just that. The results have been dramatic — but efforts to expand the program using taxpayer money have hit a political roadblock.

Six years ago, Children's Hospital outside Denver and dozens of clinics around the state began focusing on long-acting forms of contraception, such as IUDs and hormonal implants.

Research shows they're much more reliable at preventing pregnancy than the pill or condoms. Liz Romer, who runs the clinic at Children's, where teenagers and young women can get free and confidential birth control, said that's in part because they're less subject to human error.

"It gives them something that is a very effective method that doesn't require a daily decision not to get pregnant and gives them the freedom then to think about other things," she said.

Despite their effectiveness, less than 5 percent of teenagers on birth control nationwide use the long-acting forms. Implants and IUDs require a health care provider to put them in place. And the up-front cost can be high: hundreds of dollars apiece. At the Children's Hospital clinic, supplies are kept behind a locked door.

Romer unlocks the door and points out her clinic's "device shelf."

"We've got to be able to come in, grab this, and be able to deliver to a patient at that moment," she said.

Romer said having the devices on hand is crucial, so young women don't have to make a second visit. But that costs money. And so does training the health care providers.

Colorado's experiment was funded with a $23 million grant from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for the late wife of billionaire Warren Buffett. And the results are striking:. By 2013, teen births in Colorado had dropped 40 percent — compared to a 30-percent decline nationwide. The steep drop continued last year. Abortions among teenagers in Colorado were also down. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said the savings in Medicaid and government assistance far outweigh the up-front costs.

"What greater gift can you give to a teenaged potential mother than the opportunity to plan her family so when she has children, it's when they're wanted, when she can afford to care for them ... And to do it in such a cost-effective way in terms of government spending. It dramatically reduces government spending," he said.

When seed money from the Buffett foundation ran out this summer, Hickenlooper asked for state funding to continue the program. But Republican state lawmakers like Kathleen Conti said no. Conti complains the long-acting birth control is too expensive and sends the wrong message to teenagers who should instead be taught to refrain from sex.

"Don't get me wrong. I don't think the doctors encouraged the kids: 'Now that you've got this, feel free to have sex with everybody.' But I think it by default, takes away one more intimidating problem."

Conti also worries about an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, though there's been no evidence of that in Colorado. Other critics complain the program doesn't require enough parental involvement.

"There's a history of politics as it relates to anything family-planning related," said pediatrician Larry Wolk, who directs the public health department in Colorado . The fight for state funding is not over, he added. Wolk wore an IUD as a lapel pin all during this year's legislative debate.

"I was just amazed at how many people said, 'What is that?' I'd say, 'It's an IUD.' And they're like, really? It's so small, it's so lightweight ... It's like the Buick commercials that are out there. It's not your mother's IUD, for sure," he said, chuckling.

For now, Colorado is relying on a patchwork of private grants to continue its family planning initiative. At the Children's Hospital clinic, Romer said it's gratifying to see young women who got their first long-acting birth control three years ago and are now coming back for more.

"Just to watch their eyes beam. And say, 'I graduated. And I'm one of the only people in my circle of friends who doesn't have a child. And now I'm managing this or I'm in this job.' And to see that they're still dreaming big," she said.

Romer said she can't imagine turning those young women away for lack of funding. "The numbers speak so clearly," she said. "It's time to listen."

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