Affordable Family-Planning Services Continue to Fade Away Under Christie

Lilo H. Stainton | February 23, 2016 | Health Care
Latest budget plan marks seventh year running governor has not funded women’s health clinics -- and poor women are hit hardest by policy

Credit: Martin Griff
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)
Affordable, high-quality reproductive healthcare is getting harder for poor women to find in New Jersey. And — without a return of state funding — that trend is unlikely to improve in 2016, according to government advocates from Planned Parenthood.

For the seventh year in a row, Gov. Chris Christie declined to include a dedicated line item for women’s health clinics in the fiscal year 2017 budget he proposed last week. Back in 2011, he left out almost $7.5 million that previous governors had provided for Planned Parenthood and similar facilities.

Each year, lawmakers led by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) have fought to reinstate this and other funding — even ensuring it wouldn’t pay for abortions in particular — but Christie has vetoed their efforts every time.

The cumulative effect of this decision is significant, Planned Parenthood notes — nearly $45 million in lost funding.

Since Christie made that first cut, advocates say a half-dozen of the state’s 58 women’s clinics have closed, the rates of some sexually transmitted diseases have jumped more than a quarter, and inexpensive birth control is harder for needy women to find.

“The reality is that cuts to family-planning services in New Jersey took away the healthcare that women relied on in our state — including cancer screenings, affordable birth control, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. This is playing politics with women’s lives,” said Casey Olesko, communications manager with Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.

Olesko said it’s hard to prove a direct link between the funding cuts and the higher disease rates. “But when we look at the clients we serve, it shows that without this investment, these communities are not getting the services they need,” she added. “And regardless of the cause, it’s important to invest in these services.”

While seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination during recent months, Christie often connected these funding cuts to his opposition to abortion. His veto messages, however, have largely focused on calls for fiscal austerity and following the usual budget process, instead of after-the-fact appropriations for what he has called “selected interests.” The governor also insists that the services offered by Planned Parenthood — including low-cost birth control — are available through other facilities, including federally funded clinics that the state has continued to support.

“For women, we’re going to continue funding vital preventative and reproductive services,” Christie said in his fiscal year 2017 budget speech last week.

That line caught the attention of Weinberg, who has sparred with the governor for years on this issue. “I’m hoping that’s a little step forward,” she said after the budget address last week, “an acknowledgment that women do need reproductive services.”

Regardless of the language, Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor, said the budget did not reflect a policy change. Murray said that with the term “reproductive services,” Christie was referring to his proposal to include $28 million for the Federally Qualified Health Clinics, which provide comprehensive health services — including birth control — to women. Christie included the same level of funding for these facilities last year, down from $28.8 million in 2015. The network of nearly two-dozen clinics statewide treat more than 400,000 poor, uninsured, or underinsured New Jersey residents each year.

Murray declined to respond directly to Planned Parenthood findings regarding the cumulative impact of the decline in funding. He noted that women’s health is also supported through allocations Christie made to support pregnant mothers and young children ($15 million) and to reduce domestic violence and help its victims ($20 million).

In its new report, “Women’s Health at Risk,” released earlier this month, Planned Parenthood praised the expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which has helped women across New Jersey obtain cancer screenings, birth control, and more. Unfortunately, the rates of sexually transmitted infections have increased 27 percent statewide since 2009 — and nearly twice that rate in some counties. About 400,000 women now need public help paying for birth control, a 5 percent increase over the same number of years. One in five of these women is black and one in three is Hispanic — higher rates than their percentage of the state’s population.

In addition, the report notes that every $1 invested in family planning saves $7 in other public costs related to unplanned pregnancies, disease, and lost work, among other factors. “Supporting reproductive healthcare access helps women and families achieve economic stability, and is a smart long-term investment for the taxpayers — and supporting them is smart fiscal policy for the state and for the country,” it states.

While lawmakers will likely challenge Christie’s resistance to directly funding Planned Parenthood and similar facilities, they didn’t even wait for his budget message to seek another source of money to help low-income women. In a bill pre-filed for this legislative session by a quartet of Assembly members and dropped by Weinberg earlier this month in the Senate, lawmakers seek to expand the state’s Medicaid program to cover family-planning services for single residents who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $32,000 for a family of two.

Among other benefits, the sponsors point out that this funding comes with a $9 match for every $1 the state commits. Despite that ratio, Christie has also vetoed past efforts to expand Medicaid in this manner.