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Family-Planning Clinics Feel Christie's Cuts

A busy Morristown clinic is just one of 58 family-planning centers statewide that will take a hit as the 2011 budget slashes state aid from $7.5 million to 0.

Karen Miller sits outside the glass-paned nursing hub at Planned Parenthood’s Morristown clinic, waiting for her daughter to emerge from a treatment room.

Her daughter is 32 years old. A single mom. Uninsured. And in the middle of a cervical cancer scare.

“She’s gone to other clinics, but the cost was phenomenal. She comes here because they do the tests she needs at a cost she can afford, and because she’s very comfortable here,” her mother says. “They take time with you.”

The busy Morristown clinic (6,366 visits last year), located in an old brick schoolhouse on Speedwell Avenue, is one of 58 New Jersey family-planning centers bracing for lean times. Under Gov. Chris Christie’s 2011 budget, their share of state funds has plummeted from $7.5 million to zero.

A Turnaround on Family Planning

For a state that began financially backing family-planning clinics in 1967, increased grants nearly every year since then, and endeavored to build a network accessible to all women in every county, it’s a 180-degree turn.

Family-planning advocates claim the move will leave 40,000 current clinic patients in the cold—and produce unintended pregnancies. Gov. Christie maintains low-income women will be able to access equivalent services elsewhere.

The clinics offer gynecological exams; breast and cervical cancer screening; birth control; screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections; HIV testing and counseling; pre-pregnancy counseling; pregnancy testing; pre-natal care or referral; and screening for high blood pressure, anemia and diabetes.

Fees are on a sliding scale and are free to people under the federal poverty level (currently $21,660 per individual and $44,100 for a family of four). Last year the clinics provided services to 126,903 women and 9,461 men. Males tend to come for HIV testing or treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

True, not every state directly supports family-planning clinics. A 2008 report from the Guttmacher Institute, an organization in Washington, D.C., focused on sexual and reproductive health, reported that seven states surveyed in 2007 did not allocate any funds for family-planning services -- Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin.

“The seven were, however, using millions of dollars in other federal sources to provide family-planning services, just not state dollars,” says Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher policy associate.

NJ Alone Eliminates Aid for Family Planning

New Jersey is not the only state to have cut family-planning funds this year. But it is the only one to have eliminated them altogether.

“We haven’t seen this wholesale elimination of state aid anywhere else. This a drastic measure,” Nash says.

There has been pushback. In June the state legislature passed a bill to restore the entire $7.5 million, tapping surplus money in the state employee prescription program. The bill also stipulated that none of the $7.5 million be used to fund abortion. And it required the state to re-file an application to expand Medicaid coverage of family-planning services to people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level Christie withdrew the application, submitted by the Corzine administration in 2009, in March.

But the governor vetoed the bill, saying the state “simply cannot fund every worthy program” in tough economic times. He also disputed the existence of the surplus.

Overriding the Veto

Two Democratic legislators have since launched a campaign to override his veto, but their prospects aren’t looking good. Six of the seven Senate Republicans who voted for the bill now say they won’t defy the Republican governor; four of their votes are necessary for the two-thirds majority necessary to overturn the veto.

Clinic administrators say the loss of aid will force them to cut staff and hours. Although all are federally funded, and some receive income from private fundraising, state aid made up about 20 percent of their annual budgets, says Michele Jaker, executive director of the New Jersey Family Association and the state’s Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Although state funding has not been used for abortions, three of the 58 clinics do perform abortions, Jaker says.

In Morristown, where Karen Miller waits for her daughter on a sweltering Wednesday in August, clinic staff have begun calculations to absorb the hit.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, which operates the Morristown clinic and nine others, says it will take a hit of $1.2 million altogether.

“That’s about 12 per cent of our budget. We’re not talking about pencils. We’ll have to start making real cuts pretty soon,” says president Triste Brooks.

In the clinic, a steady flow of patients comes and goes for 12 hours. In the morning, there are 11 walk-ins, most of whom need birth control supplies, HIV testing or a pregnancy test. In the afternoon and into the evening Dr. Jennifer Howard, the clinic’s medical director, sees patients with appointments. Bilingual staffers are on hand throughout for people with limited English.

Treating the Uninsured

Statewide, 70 percent of patients who visit family-planning centers are uninsured. Another 20 per cent are covered by Medicaid, the state and federal program for low-income families. Many of the Morristown clinic’s patients are uninsured, but not all.

“We have people who say ‘I have insurance, but I like it here,’ ” says Ann Ferraiolo, director of patient services for the clinic’s parent agency. “They like the fact that our staff speaks to them before and after they seen a clinician.”

Senator Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who is leading the drive to restore the $7.5 million, maintains public opinion is building and on her side. State Senate President Steven Sweeney has assured her he will post a vote for an override, she notes.

“There’s no doubt that this is ideological, something Christie chose as a tip of the hat to the ultra right wing,” Weinberg asserts.

NJ Right to Life

Marie Tasy, head of New Jersey Right to Life, says she is glad to see funding withdrawn, something she has long urged. She adds she did not discuss the issue with the governor, except to say thanks.

“Planned Parenthood has a radical political agenda. It’s the largest provider of abortions in the nation,” she says. “It’s shocking that lawmakers are still trying to fund these groups. If voters were given any say about Planned Parenthood receiving a lot of taxpayer money, I think they’d reject it.”

At the Morristown clinic, Miller states she had not heard about the controversy.

Abortion and birth control have always stirred debates, she says. But pulling funding could jeopardize the health of clinic patients, something she hoped politicians would keep that in mind.

"It's not just all about abortion or pregnancies," she says. "It's so much more than that."

Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance writer based in West Orange.

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