Telehealth abortions could ‘offload’ Western PA surge in demand — if they were widely offered

(Illustration by Andrea Shockling/PublicSource)

Abortion pills by mail were approved by the FDA in December. They’re safe, cost effective and often ready sooner than in-clinic options. But at a time when they’re needed most, telehealth abortions are not offered at either of the Pittsburgh region’s clinics.

by Sophia Levin, PublicSource

“Hey, cluster of cells,” Etna resident Jessica Semler said when she found out she was pregnant. “This is so fantastic that you’re possible. I’m not ready yet — try in five years.” 

Semler was 25, recently resettled to Pittsburgh and temporarily unemployed. She wasn’t sure she could pay for parking, let alone a child. After taking her first dose of abortion pills on Jan. 5, 2013, Semler immediately felt relieved. “I had the most affirming experience I could have possibly had,” she said. The agency to choose her abortion method played a big part in that.

Medication abortions, also known as medical abortions, eclipsed surgical ones in 2020. In December, the FDA approved telehealth abortions, allowing a safe, entirely-at-home abortion option. Tens of thousands of patients have gone online to consult a clinician, who has the pills mailed directly to the patient’s address. 

Telehealth medical abortion is often faster and cheaper than in-clinic options, which is especially critical as providers shoulder a swell of patients. The service is widely available in 20 states, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.

“People ask [about telehealth abortion] all the time. … We don’t offer it,” said Crystal Grabowski, a health care assistant at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania [PPWP]. “I know that we’re working on it. I hope it doesn’t take a long time.” She said PPWP has been discussing telehealth abortion for about a year. 

According to PPWP spokesperson Sara Dixon, staff shortages and state regulations have made it difficult for the clinic to expand services.

Jessica Semler had a medical abortion in 2013. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Allegheny Reproductive Health Center [ARHC], the only other abortion clinic in the region, is waiting for the Pennsylvania Department of Health to approve its proposed telehealth protocol, according to its CEO Dr. Sheila Ramgopal.

The department, in response to PublicSource’s inquiries, said it does not impose a specific bar to telehealth services, though they “must be offered in a manner that would comply with applicable state laws and regulations,” and the prescribing physician must be in a state-approved facility. Patients may need to go to a physical site to meet “regulatory requirements for pre-abortion clinical testing … but those results can be transmitted electronically,” the department spokesperson said in a statement.

Abortion in Pennsylvania is legal until the 24th week of pregnancy. Telehealth options would expand access as the state absorbs patients from Ohio and West Virginia. “Prior to Dobbs, we were seeing 30% of people from out of state,” Ramgopal said. “Now we’re at 60% out of state.” Wait times doubled from one week to two at ARHC as it schedules three times as many patients.

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