Wait times at Colorado abortion clinics hit 2 weeks as out-of-state patients strain system

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, June 14, 2022.

Patients looking for an abortion appointment in Colorado should expect longer wait times due to surging demand, local providers and researchers say.

Waits are hovering around two weeks for most clinics — up from just seven days earlier this year, according to a recent survey of providers conducted by researchers at Middlebury College. Out-of-state patient demand is the main driver behind the jump, said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor who led the survey.

“[Demand] has only grown now that Roe has been reversed and no providers remain in Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma,” Myers said. “This strain is likely to grow even more if other western states including Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming begin enforcing bans, as is widely expected.”

In most of the country, the median wait time for abortions before the overturning of Roe v. Wade was around five days. Colorado has a higher average due to its broad legal protections and proximity to a large number of states that have restricted the procedure, Myers said. Other western states that still allow abortions, such as New Mexico, have also seen wait times spike.

The data suggests that as more state bans go into effect, people who need to travel to a different state for care may have more trouble getting appointments at all, Myers added. That also means fewer slots are available for patients who currently live in states like Colorado, where the procedure is protected by state law.

The Middlebury survey was conducted the week of July 11. Of the 19 clinics contacted in Colorado, three providers said they had temporarily paused appointment scheduling altogether, either due to high demand or staffing issues. Another had consolidated its operations from two locations to one due to a labor shortage.

Gina Martinez-Valentin, director of the Colorado Doula Project, a nonprofit that helps people plan the logistics of traveling across state lines to access abortion care, said she has heard from more panicked patients in recent weeks who couldn’t find timely appointments in Denver or Boulder.

“People are really struggling to not have to wait weeks to get the care they need,” Martinez-Valentin said. “Now they’re going even farther to Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Durango just to get an appointment.”  

Those longer trips are often more expensive and stressful for patients who may be traveling via plane or long distance bus for the first time in their lives. A recent client got stranded at a bus station in Loveland without any money after flying in from Louisiana, Martinez-Valentin said.

“It happens more than you might think,” she said.

Longer wait times also mean that more abortions may happen at later stages of gestation.

Later-term abortions are often more medically complex and expensive. Both sides of the abortion debate also tend to criticize waiting longer to perform abortions, albeit for different reasons. 

For some providers, the spike in demand means they have had to make tough choices about which patients to see first.

Dr. Rebecca Cohen, medical director of the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center in Denver, said her office has started prioritizing people at later stages of pregnancy. People with “complex medical or social needs'' are also given first consideration, she said. 

Patients who are under 10 weeks (the federal legal cutoff for medication abortions) are asked to wait longer to accommodate patients closer to the clinic’s cutoff for procedural abortions, which is 23 weeks and 6 days.

Due to longer wait times, Cohen’s office has had patients miss that window and have to cancel their appointments altogether, she said.

“We are trying to do our best to make sure that doesn't happen by delaying people at six or seven weeks of pregnancy, so that even if they are waiting they are less than 10 weeks,” Cohen said. “It still does happen from time to time so we are working to increase our first trimester capacity and get people in sooner.” 

Other abortion providers say they are also looking for ways to meet the increased need.

Appointment requests have jumped 83 percent over the past month at Just the Pill’s mobile medication abortion clinic in Colorado. The organization drives the clinic along the state’s northern and eastern borders to serve patients coming from Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and other nearby states. 

In the four weeks leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the organization saw 437 appointment requests. In the four weeks after, that number spiked to 801, which has strained staff.

“It’s emotionally and physically draining work,” said Kathryn Mavengere, a spokeswoman for the organization, in an emailed statement. “As frontline caregivers, we carry the load of providing hands-on-care in the midst of a chaotic political landscape.” 

To help absorb demand, Just the Pill plans to open another, larger mobile clinic that offers procedural abortions later this summer, the organization said in a statement. 

Planned Parenthood, Colorado’s largest abortion provider, said the huge uptick is also happening in other states where abortion remains legal. And the demand is not just for abortion services. Contraception visits are also skyrocketing.

“On June 24th, the day the Supreme court overturned Roe, there was a 150-percent increase in birth control appointments scheduled at planned parenthood health centers, a 375-percent increase in IUD appointments, and a 48-percent increase in the number of emergency contraception appointments,” said Danika Severino Wynn, the Vice President of Abortion Access for Planned Parenthood.

Dr. Meera Shah, the Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in New York, said it’s critical for clinics to plan long-term by adjusting hours and capacity.  

“We're expanding our training to local medical residents to provide abortion care due to an increase in interest from future physicians who desire to practice abortion care as part of their scope.” 

Shah called the current situation a national crisis and said it’s unsustainable. 

“There is no way that nearly half the country can absorb the patients that are being forced to travel out of state for abortion because essential healthcare is now banned in their home state,” Shah said.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the organization’s arm in Colorado, recently paused appointments at its Alamosa health clinic due to a staffing shortage, a spokeswoman said. While they work on hiring in Alamosa, PPRM is sending patients to the organization’s next-closest clinic in Salida, which is 82 miles away.

The organization has dozens of nursing, security and other job openings system-wide in Colorado, according to its website.

“The overall trend is that wait times are getting longer and demand is not slowing down,” the organization said in a statement to CPR News. “Although we have been preparing for [the Roe decision] and expanding our services for years, health centers in our region will struggle to manage in the long term.”