New Jerseyans should find it easier to get birth control and other family planning services, cancer screenings, and additional healthcare treatments thanks to a pair of bills Gov. Phil Murphy signed yesterday, the first legislation the Democrat has endorsed since he took office last month.
One measure — a longtime priority for Democrats and women’s health advocates — restores $7.45 million in state funding for family planning services, a once annual allotment that had been suspended for eight years under former Gov. Chris Christie. The money — which federal law prevents from being used for abortions — is to be distributed among more than three dozen clinics in the weeks to come, officials said.
The second bill Murphy signed expands Medicaid to provide family-planning services, including abortion, to more working-poor residents. The governor also called for a policy change that will expand access to long-acting birth control for women covered by Medicaid. While 90 percent of new Medicaid costs will be covered by the federal government, the state-only funding does not attract any such federal “match.”
“This is smart family planning and it further deepens our commitment to healthy women and healthy families,” Murphy told a crowd of more than 150 at the War Memorial Theatre in Trenton.
‘…years of neglect’
The governor was joined on stage by U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the legislation’s longtime champion, along with leaders from Planned Parenthood, including national president Cecile Richards, and Tammy Murphy, his wife.
“I know a stroke of a pen cannot undo eight years of neglect. It cannot reverse an STD diagnosis missed, or return a life lost to a cancer that could have or should have been caught,” Murphy said, pledging to “fully fund” women’s healthcare in the fiscal year 2019 budget that he will unveil next month. “But turning our state around, to stand again for the right values starts here, it starts now, and it starts with us.”
Over the years, the funding suspension totaled $60 million, a loss that advocates said contributed to the closure of six clinics in five counties. Murphy also noted that tens of thousands of women have missed out on breast and cervical cancer screenings — increasing the likelihood of disease for some — and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases has risen in New Jersey, mirroring a nationwide trend.
Watson Coleman said Murphy’s decision to prioritize this funding was especially sweet, given the ongoing attacks on women and healthcare proposed by the Trump administration. “New Jersey is really showing the rest of the country how it is done when it comes to women’s health,” Richards added.
Strong support from Planned Parenthood
Murphy highlighted his support for family-planning dollars during his gubernatorial campaign and received strong support from Planned Parenthood, healthcare advocates, and female voters. The legislation authorizing the funding was the first bill passed by the state Senate this year, thanks in part to its longtime champion Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), and it was approved by the house along more partisan lines last Thursday.
“Governor Murphy, don’t think it’s the last — I have a whole long list of bills,” Weinberg reminded Murphy.
Wednesday’s celebration caps a long crusade for women’s healthcare funding that had involved perennial battles in Trenton, as Democratic lawmakers — with support from a handful of Republicans, including Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Hunterdon) and former Sen. Diane Allen (D-Burlington) — worked with advocacy groups each year to restore the money through a supplementary budget appropriation.
But the Legislature was unable to muster enough votes to override another annual tradition: Christie’s veto of the bill. While Christie framed his opposition as ideological during his presidential run, his vetoes tended to focus on his desire to maintain an orderly budget process.
The Christie years
The state Department of Health, which oversees many women’s care programs, stressed that other dollars continued to flow to family planning sites during Christie’s years in office. New Jersey continued to receive federal grants, or Title X funds — totaling $8.4 million last year — that are distributed through a designated nonprofit, the New Jersey Family Planning League, to 43 clinics throughout the state. (Planned Parenthood operates 26 of these facilities.)
In addition, the DOH allocates about $30 million to community health centers, many of which offer family planning services; $12 million to support cancer prevention and screenings; $5.7 million to address STDs; and $2.1 million to support family planning statewide, also distributed through the Family Planning League, according to a department representative.
For years, until Christie became governor, New Jersey officials also allocated state funds — ranging from $4.3 million in fiscal year 2005 to $7.59 in the 2010 budget, crafted by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat — to supplement the Title X federal family planning money, according to DOH. Grants were determined through a formal application process, something the state expects to restart for the next round of funding promised by Murphy, in fiscal year 2019.
According to Planned Parenthood, this state funding supported services for 136,000 women in 2009. The Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health, estimates that every public dollar invested in family-planning services results in more than $7 in savings over time, given the reduction in costs associated with pregnancies and infections, for example.
Black infant mortality
“This funding will offer more resources to clinics that are often the only healthcare providers that women encounter in a given year — they provide critical primary and preventative health care to these patients,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, acting commissioner at the DOH. The money will also help the state address a black infant mortality rate that is three times that of white babies, he said, an issue he termed an “unacceptable health disparity” and one that has received growing attention in recent months.
Kate Clark, external relations director for the Family Planning League, said the funding allocated through the law Murphy signed yesterday could be used to help the 43 clinics it supports to expand hours, recruit and hire new staff, increase STD testing, and enhance marketing. It could also be used for physical improvements at the sites, to pay for services like transportation or childcare — which make it easier for people to seek treatment, or to support the opening of a new site, if needed.
“Restoring state funding for family planning will support the stability and growth of New Jersey’s publicly funded family planning delivery system,” Clark said. “Provider agencies will be better positioned to develop and implement innovative interventions to improve pregnancy planning and spacing, reduce unintended pregnancy, and address our state’s reproductive and sexual healthcare needs.”
Reducing unwanted pregnancies is also a goal of the Medicaid expansion bill Murphy signed. The measure raises the eligibility limit for individuals seeking family-planning services from 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or just under $21,000 for one person, to 200 percent, or more than $30,000 a year. The state now covers individuals up to 138 percent, and pregnant women who earn as much as 200 percent.
Murphy said changing the state’s Medicaid policy to increase access to long-term contraception is another way to cut down on the number of abortions and unplanned births. The program now covers IUDs and hormone implants, which can last for months, but not for a woman who has just given birth.
“We have become an outlier in this, one of only seven states that does not give women the option of accessing a long-acting contraception before they are discharged from the hospital after birth,” Murphy said. This option is particularly important, he said, “at perhaps a time when preventing another pregnancy is at the front of the mind.”