On the Wisconsin-Illinois border: Clinics in neighboring states team up

WAUKEGAN, Ill. — About two days a week, Natalie Hartwig leaves her home in Madison, Wisconsin, to travel across the border to Illinois before her son wakes up.

“Fortunately it’s summer,” said Hartwig, a nurse midwife at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “For now, she can sleep. But any preparations will be on my wife.”

He drives at least two hours each way, engrossed in audiobooks and podcasts as he commutes from a clinic in this northern Illinois suburb. She spends her days in the recovery room, caring for abortion patients and checking their vitals before going home. She is licensed and trained in Illinois to provide medication abortions, something she will be able to do virtually via telehealth with patients throughout Illinois.

Hartwig is mainly working part-time in Illinois because when Roe v. Wade Overturned in June, a state law went into effect immediately that banned almost all abortions in Wisconsin except to save the life of the pregnant woman. Wisconsin providers want to preserve access for patients, while Illinois — long an oasis for abortion rights — needs more staff to help treat the surge of people arriving across the United States.

The Waukegan clinic is Planned Parenthood of Illinois for out-of-state abortion patients. after Ro By fall, 60% of patients at the clinic came from out of state – mostly from Wisconsin. In fact, the company opened in Waukegan two years ago with Wisconsin in mind, knowing that if Roe v. Wade had fallen, access to abortion in that state would have been greatly reduced.

after Ro Struck, Planned Parenthood agencies in both states announced their partnership. More than a dozen Wisconsin employees — doctors, nurses and medical assistants — now commute to Waukegan to help provide care.

“It really needed this perfect pairing of supply and demand,” said Kristen Schultz, chief strategy and operations officer for Planned Parenthood in Illinois. “They had power without local demand, and we had the opposite.”

The month after the US Supreme Court overturned a federal landmark decision, Illinois became even more of an oasis for people seeking abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that supports abortion rights and tracks the issue, dozens of clinics across the country have closed since the ban took effect in 11 states in the South and Midwest.

The influx of patients to Illinois has had another effect. For years, abortion providers have been traveling once or twice a month to other states, such as Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where their help is most needed.

Dr. Laura Laursen, an OB-GYN in Chicago, is one of them.

“Now the script is completely flipped,” said Laursen, a physician associate for reproductive health. “This is where you are needed more than anywhere else.”

Anti-abortion groups oppose Planned Parenthood partnerships and are preparing for a marathon effort to limit abortion rights in Illinois. In a statement after the organization’s announcement, Amy Gehrke, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, called it “particularly sad.”

Some Wisconsin providers travel to Waukegan several times a week; Others a few days a month.

For Hartwig, associate director of clinical services at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, she’s able to do more for Illinois patients than back home. Even as a nurse with an advanced degree, she was not allowed to perform medication abortions in Wisconsin. But he can in Illinois, according to the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

“It’s really what I was always supposed to do,” Hartwig said. “There is nothing that will stop me from helping our patients.”

Dr. Kathy King, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s medical director, said that while her staff is dedicated to providing these services, it comes at a cost.

“It’s a burden for our physicians and nurses and medical assistants who have young children at home,” King said. “That’s nice to hear. Sure, we all go to Waukegan five days a week. But the logistics of it and the sacrifice of just doing it in people’s daily lives takes a toll.”

Still, this sacrifice helped. With staff in Wisconsin, the Waukegan clinic has doubled the number of abortion appointments available and is still growing. This support frees up other staff to treat patients with various needs, such as birth control and cancer screening.

The number of patients seeking abortion appointments at all Planned Parenthood of Illinois clinics from Wisconsin increased — increasing tenfold in the following month. Ro That jumped from about 35 patients a month to 350, King said. It does not include Wisconsin residents who sought abortions with other providers.

The Waukegan clinic’s partnership has sparked interest from abortion providers in other surrounding states. Planned Parenthood of Illinois is fielding calls from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, for example, Schultz said.

Illinois needs more staff to treat more patients. The commute from Wisconsin to Waukegan is relatively short compared to abortion providers in Ohio, for example, who have to cross Indiana to get rid of their staffing needs.

Across the country, other conversations are happening among providers. The National Abortion Federation, which has about 500 member facilities, including independent abortion clinics and hospitals, is connecting people seeking clinic jobs with people who need staff, said Melissa Fowler, the federation’s chief program officer.

Still, he admits that moving isn’t a realistic option for everyone.

“People have lives,” Fowler said. “They have families. They are deeply rooted in their communities. … And so the situation you see in Illinois and Wisconsin is great because people are able to stay connected to their communities, not have to move their families and still be able to provide care.”

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBEZ Chicago, NPR and KHN.

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