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Annual Fight for Women’s Healthcare Funding: Round Seven

Weinberg, Democratic colleagues continue to struggle to restore $7.5 million to Christie budget plan

weinberg
Credit: Martin Griff
Assembly Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)

New Jersey government is rich with rituals. Some, like the governor’s annual budget presentation, are required by state law. Others, like the colorful personal stories legislators recount as a sendoff to retiring colleagues during their last public voting session, are Trenton traditions.

The annual fight to restore nearly $7.5 million in state funding for women’s healthcare has become one of those traditions.

On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) launched the latest battle in a war she has waged each year since 2010, when Gov. Chris Christie declined to include the funding in the spending plan for fiscal year 2011. The quest has yet to be successful, but a few Republicans have supported the Democratic-led effort in the past and, with Gov. Chris Christie’s diminished approval rating, some suggest the outcome could be different this time around.

The funding, which was routine under recent governors, covered reproductive health services, including cancer screenings, birth control, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; it did not pay for abortions. Six clinics have closed since the funding was cut, advocates said.

“Why is women’s health, and women’s access to reproductive care, still a battle in this state -- in this blue, progressive New Jersey?” Weinberg asked. “Sometimes I wake up and think I am Rip Van Winkle. Is this the same world that it was 40 years ago?”

Weinberg joined her loyal ally in the fight, Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), along with patients and representatives of Planned Parenthood and members of the Family Planning Association of New Jersey, at a press conference in Trenton. Weinberg and Mazzeo discussed legislation they have proposed to restore the funding for the current year and include another $7.5 million in the FY2017 budget, which lawmakers must approve by the end of June. Christie has vetoed similar bills in the past.

"Year after year we attempt to restore this critical funding for women's health -- only for it to be vetoed each time by the governor. It's time we stop playing politics with women's health,” Mazzeo said. “In the end, our investment in accessible and affordable healthcare for women will save dollars and more importantly save lives.”

Planned Parenthood also underscored this economic point. For every $1 invested, $7 is saved in long-term costs associated with unintended pregnancies, lost work, or STD’s prevented, according to their “Women’s Health at Risk” report released earlier this year. The research also found that some 400,000 women in New Jersey now need help paying for birth control -- a five percent increase since 2009.

“This year, we hope that legislators in both parties will stand up for women in their districts and help them access the care they need -- after all, family planning isn’t a partisan issue,” said Casey Olesko of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey. “Women, men, and teens come to us not to make a political statement, but to get compassionate and nonjudgmental care.”

One Republican who has raised concerns about healthcare access is Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth.) Beck has supported at least one effort to restore the funding and questioned health department officials about the impact on women during a Senate Budget Committee hearing last month. Beck cited figures from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that showed family planning clinics had seen 37,000 fewer patients since the 2011 cut. ‘

“It’s a point of personal concern for me,” Beck said at the hearing. She declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment yesterday on the latest effort.

State officials pushed back aggressively on the suggestion that women are not able to access affordable care. The Department of Health said there are 164 sites that offer low-cost family-planning services or STD treatments, including 90 Federally Qualified Health Care facilities. In addition, nearly 147,000 women of reproductive age have gained healthcare coverage through the Medicaid expansion associated with the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that insurance companies cover birth control for free.

The health department also points to the millions in Christie’s proposed FY2017 budget that does support women’s healthcare, albeit through different avenues. The new spending plan includes $28 million for the FQHCs, which treat hundreds of thousands of low-income residents each year, and $6.2 million for family planning and STD clinics. Another $10 million will help support cancer screenings through the state’s early-detection program.

Christie has generally attributed his decision not to fund the program to the state’s perennial revenue shortage; when he vetoed past supplementary funding proposals, he suggested they were an inappropriate route around the budget process. But, while campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, Christie pointed to the funding cuts as evidence of his opposition to abortion.

His office declined to comment on any disparity yesterday. When asked about any influence the position of Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, might have on Christie, a spokesman deferred questions to the Trump campaign, which could not be reached for comment late Thursday. Trump, who tapped Christie to head his potential transition team, appears to have evolved on the issue over the years; most recently he suggested he opposed abortion but approved of other Planned Parenthood services.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has long backed the effort, said it has been frustrating to watch the administration fail to make women’s health a priority. “I get angry when I think of what we could have done with all of that money. We are not going to stop that fight. Sen. Weinberg and I are committed to making sure that funding will go back into the budget to make sure women’s health facilities like Planned Parenthood are available to those who need them,” he said in a statement.

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