Bills Revive Annual Debate Over Women’s Health

Andrew Kitchenman | June 18, 2013 | Health Care
Measures funding clinics, expanding Medicaid coverage for family planning likely face Christie vetoes once again

Expanded family planning services are at stake in this year’s installment of the annual battle over funding for women’s healthcare as the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday advanced two bills that Gov. Chris Christie will likely veto.

One bill, A-4172|S-2825, would provide $7.45 million in funding for family planning services, while the other, A-4171|S-2824, would expand Medicaid coverage for family planning to women who aren’t pregnant.

Democratic legislators proposed similar bills after Christie eliminated the family planning funding and withdrew an application to expand Medicaid coverage in 2010, but Christie vetoed those measures.

Supporters of the bills say the loss of the funding led to closure of six family planning health centers. They said some women depended on the centers for their primary care needs and that the increased travel distance to other providers may have prevented some women from seeking care.

Opponents of the measure say equivalent services are available at other clinics and question whether there is any evidence that women have lost access to care.

Michele Jaker, a representative of the Family Planning Association of New Jersey, said family planning providers saw 33,000 fewer patients in 2012 compared with 2009, a 24 percent drop.

“Some patients may have lost services immediately because their health center closed and they did not have access to other providers,” Jaker said. “Others have experienced longer wait times for appointments or have had to pay more out of pocket.”

The funding bill states that the none of the $7.45 million could be used for abortions, but critics have said that clinics could shift existing funding toward abortions. Jaker said yesterday, though, that audits of clinics’ finances ensure that the accounts are kept separate.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said there’s no proof that patients who are no longer going to family planning providers aren’t receiving healthcare elsewhere.

“It’s a myth,” O’Scanlon said of the belief that women can’t receive healthcare from other providers, such as federally qualified health centers (FQHCs).

Jaker said it was impossible to know what happened to patients who formerly received care from the Bayonne Women’s Health Centers, which closed after the funding cuts. The nearest FQHC is in Jersey City.

“There is no one there to take the women’s calls, so we have no idea if they’re being served,” Jaker said.

Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer (D-Bergen and Passaic), noting low car-ownership rates in some New Jersey cities, said women dependent on public transit could struggle to find accessible providers.

“Transportation is a major issue,” said Reginald Rosarion, director of the Family Life Institute, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Newark.

O’Scanlon noted in a statement that state health officials haven’t heard complaints about a lack of access, while Democratic legislators questioned whether women without access would call the state.

The Medicaid bill would allow residents — including women who aren’t pregnant — to receive family planning services through Medicaid. It would apply to residents with incomes below twice the poverty line, which currently amounts to $22,980 for a single person.

The measure would cover 80,000 patients and save the state more than $43 million in Medicaid-funded prenatal, delivery and infant care costs due to lower birth rates, Jaker said, citing estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research organization.

Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-Bergen) said that if the state doesn’t pass the bills now, it will cost more later.

In 8-4 votes approving both measures, the committee divided along party lines, with all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.