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Planned Parenthood of Illinois chief fights opposition

Jennifer Welch applied to be president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois before Donald Trump won the presidential election, a victory that has ushered in a new wave of challenges for the organization.

But the turn of events didn't give Welch pause when it came to starting her new job in May. "I never swayed from wanting to return to Planned Parenthood," said Welch, 49, a lifelong Chicago-area resident who is also now head of Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, the organization's advocacy and political arm.

She takes over at a tricky time for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, which has 16 health centers providing reproductive health care services across the state. Congress has already attempted to defund the organization a number of times, and many wonder whether Trump might be able to appoint enough conservative Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion across the U.S.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you want to lead Planned Parenthood of Illinois?

A: I worked at Planned Parenthood of Illinois 20-something years ago. I interned at Planned Parenthood and then worked as a health care assistant.

In between, I went to law school and ran a domestic violence policy organization here in Chicago for almost 10 years. I've worked for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and then I worked for the city of Chicago as well.

My whole history has been working on women's issues and social impact, and that's part of the reason why coming back to Planned Parenthood is such a wonderful opportunity for me. It's a sort of a culmination of my whole career.

Q: Why now, especially given all the debate over Planned Parenthood funding?

A: It's an additional challenge because the administration is targeting Planned Parenthood and our patients who come here, so for me this job is an opportunity to serve the 65,000 patients who come to Planned Parenthood (of Illinois) but also to help protect access for everyone in Illinois.

Q: How do you do that in this climate?

A: Right now Planned Parenthood of Illinois' biggest initiative is HB40, which is a bill that has passed both the House and the Senate and it (removes) a dangerous trigger provision that we have currently in Illinois law. That means that even if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, abortion would still be safe and legal here in Illinois. It also removes the discriminatory provision that right now in Illinois law blocks people who have state Medicaid or state employee health insurance from using that insurance to get abortion care. We hope the governor keeps his campaign promise to protect reproductive rights and signs that bill.

Q: Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he supports the part of the bill that aims to keep abortion legal in Illinois even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, but he's said he doesn't support the part that would expand taxpayer-funded abortion coverage. How would it affect Planned Parenthood of Illinois if he vetoes all or part of the bill?

A: We hope the governor won't veto the bill at all, but if he does an amendatory veto where he separates the two provisions, I understand from what I have heard, that the sponsor would not accept that, and Planned Parenthood supports (the sponsor). We want access for all women in Illinois. We don't want to leave our patients who are either covered under Illinois Medicaid or covered by state employee health insurance behind.

Q: Recent bills to replace the Affordable Care Act would have stopped federal funding for Planned Parenthood for a year. How would that affect Planned Parenthood of Illinois?

A: Planned Parenthood services would remain available, but it would be those most vulnerable patients who wouldn't get the care that they need. It's a long list of health care services that those patients who were under (Medicaid) would not be able to get at Planned Parenthood.

Sometimes people wonder if private donations can make up the difference. There's no question that our supporters have come out like never before. We have many donors and an increase in donors, but private funding can never replace government-subsidized care. It's just not possible. And it's also not appropriate. Politicians don't think any other preventative care should be paid for with private donations.

Our services would remain available, and we would do everything we could to serve as many of our patients as possible, and ultimately if we couldn't serve patients, we would help them find other providers who might. It's really important for politicians to be honest that there aren't other options in many communities.

Q: Some of those who want to pull Planned Parenthood's funding argue that even though the money doesn't directly support abortions, it's fungible. They say any money sent to Planned Parenthood is supporting an organization that performs abortions. How do you respond?

A: Federal funds don't pay for abortion. They haven't in many, many years. But … Planned Parenthood is unapologetic about providing the care that our patients need, so abortion services are part of the comprehensive reproductive health care services that we offer and we're going to continue to do that.

Q: You saw a big increase in demand for birth control shortly after the election. Has that continued?

A: Absolutely. We've seen an increase in all forms of services, including people who are coming to us for those long-acting reversible contraceptives because people want to know that they can have their care taken care of through the duration of this administration.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Planned Parenthood of Illinois?

A: The biggest misunderstanding is there's a line item in the budget for Planned Parenthood or that the federal government writes us a check. The reality is we are like every other health care provider. We get reimbursed for the care we provide.

lschencker@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @lschencker

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