It could have been a women’s rally from the 1960’s, with women massing at the Statehouse and calling for funds to protect healthcare and reproductive freedom for all women, regardless of income. Instead, it was a 2011 meeting called by female legislative leaders and the Women’s Political Caucus to address many of the same issues they fought for nearly five decades ago.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) organized the roundtable discussion with members of the caucus and healthcare providers who could speak firsthand about how budget cuts have already reduced healthcare access for poor and working-class women and their families. She also called on Gov. Chris Christie to add a total of $8.5 million more to the 2012 budget proposal to fund family planning services and healthcare, including a $1 million pledge that Weinberg says will trigger a $9 million federal match.
Although the Women’s Political Caucus is a bipartisan group, one of its primary missions is to protect reproductive freedom, and the Wednesday roundtable was primarily a Democratic event. The group blasted Gov. Chris Christie for eliminating $7.5 million for family planning clinics, like Planned Parenthood, from the current year budget, a reduction advocates said contributed to the closing of at least five facilities. The governor vetoed several bills to restore this funding last year, despite assurances it would not be used for abortions.
“This is very disheartening. We’re moving back, 40 or 50 years,” said Weinberg, who led the legislative effort to restore the $7.5 million. “We really believe the governor is part of a war on women,” she added, noting that reproductive rights have now become a target once again in Washington, D.C. as well.
In fact, Weinberg is slated to join several legislative colleagues -- some of them men -- and healthcare advocates from Citizen Action to protest the governor’s plans to reduce the state’s Family Care program, which provides subsidized health insurance for more than a million working class New Jerseyans. Cuts in last year's budget changed the income requirements and left some 50,000 parents ineligible for coverage, including scores of women who struggled to find reproductive health services, advocates said.
Assemblywoman Linda Stender, (D-Union), who led the debate in the Assembly has fought alongside Weinberg, pointed out the economic advantages to providing family planning and preventative care. A study by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health, said the proposal to invest an extra $1 million -- which would be used to expand certain Medicaid services to a limited group of women -- would actually save the state more than $40 million in the long run, when considering the costs associated with caring for children from unplanned pregnancies.
“The administration is clearly embracing a barefoot and pregnant policy,” Stender said.
But Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor, accused Weinberg of “playing politics,” noting that it is the lLegislature’s responsibility to pass a budget -- and Democrats now hold a majority. “If she wants to make changes to the budget proposal, she should actually get to work on a fiscally responsible budget for the taxpayers of the state instead of engaging in political theater,” Roberts said.
Administration officials, including acting health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd, have said repeatedly that women without insurance do have options when it comes to essential healthcare services, including family planning. At a Senate Budget Committee hearing last week, O’Dowd noted that if a woman can’t afford a doctors visit or find a low-cost clinic, she can still receive birth control and other care from federally funded clinics, county facilities and even some hospitals -- a suggestion that sparked Weinberg’s ire.
A health department spokesperson said that there are now 49 family planning centers receiving state funding; this includes the Planned Parenthood network, which lists 29 sites on its website. These facilities still receive $12 million in public funding, she said, but almost all of it comes from the federal government. The state health department plans to kick in $400,000 this year, nearly $7 million less than the funding level of the past that advocates want restored.
But members of the panel, which included healthcare providers and women’s advocates, described in detail how this safety net of federal and county facilities is already stretched too thin. After years of cuts, they are struggling to provide care to the patients they already have. Panelists also expressed disbelief to find themselves fighting for an issue -- access to reproductive care -- that they thought was settled long ago.
“It's time to get my protest signs out of my closet,” quipped Patricia Barnett, CEO of the New Jersey Nurses Association.
Katherine Grant Davis, who oversees the state’s Federally Qualified Health Centers, a network of 100 sites that provide a wide range of care at a low cost to patients, noted that these facilities have seen a 124 percent increase in patients in the past decade. It can now take up to three months for a women to get an appointment with an obstetrician -- which makes it tough to provide good prenatal care. These centers need more space and more OB/GYNs if they are going to continue to receive patients that are squeezed out of more expensive care.
“We don’t have the provider base to handle increased demand,” Grant Davis said. “And we really can’t keep up.”
The Women’s Health and Counseling Center, in Somerville, has had to stop taking new patients, explained director Fran Palm. The clinic has been providing service to low-income women and teens for nearly 40 years, but the lack of funding is a “devastating blow” to the facility and others like it, she said.
“Access to these services is critical,” Palm said. “We don’t want to turn people away, but that’s what we’re facing.”
Weinberg and the other panelists asked the audience to help them spread the word about the problem, in hopes that motivating women to speak up for their healthcare will pressure the governor to restore and add funding. Members of the audience also offered several solutions, like engaging college-age women, preparing a form letter to the governor that could be shared widely and using more online tools, like a Facebook page for the movement.
“We’re not going away,” Weinberg vowed. “This is going to be an ongoing fight.”