Six years after Gov. Chris Christie made what he then described as a fiscal choice to not include $7.5 million in the state budget for local women’s healthcare facilities, debate continues over how -- and even if -- the decision affected women and families in New Jersey.
Discussion at legislative budget hearings on Monday and Tuesday suggested that more than three-quarters of the women who no longer visit Planned Parenthood or similar facilities now receive care from federal or state-run programs. What is not clear is how these patients found their new doctors, if the switch resulted in treatment delays or health concerns, and where the remaining 8,000 women now go to receive low-cost birth control, annual cancer screenings, and other women’s healthcare services.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), cited figures from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that showed family-planning clinics like Planned Parenthood had seen 37,000 fewer patients since Christie decided to not include the funds in his fiscal year 2011 budget, money that had become an annual appropriation under previous governors. Beck said that, over that same time, Federally Qualified Health Centers and state-run family-planning leagues have seen an increase in 29,000 patients.
“The question that perennially has come up is did these folks find their way to the FQHCs? Did they get the care they need?” Beck asked DOH officials during Tuesday’s Senate Budget Committee hearing. “It’s a point of personal concern for me.”
Acting health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett assured Senate members that multiple avenues still exist for women to receive quality care. In addition to FQHCs, 90 of which provide comprehensive women’s care, and the family-planning leagues, she said many college-age women receive birth control and other services from campus healthcare facilities.
“No women in New Jersey should have trouble accessing care and I’m not aware of any who have,” Bennett said on Monday, during a hearing before the Assembly Budget Committee.But Democratic lawmakers and healthcare advocates have challenged this scenario, insisting that cuts -- which add up to nearly $45 million over time -- have made it harder for poor women, especially those with limited English, to connect with basic quality care in a timely manner. Since then, six of New Jersey’s 58 women’s clinics have closed. (In FY2011, Christie also declined to include $1 million for women’s services, a onetime investment that would have provided a $9 million match through the federal Medicaid program.)
“It is unjust and unfair to say that these women have full access,” Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, (D-Essex), said at Monday’s hearing. She said her office “constantly” gets calls from women seeking low-cost services who must now “jump through a million bureaucratic hurdles to access healthcare.”
“While we may have been successful in helping redirect many of these women to the services they desperately need, that doesn’t account for the many women who have not reached out to us who are left to fend for themselves, unsure of whether there are alternative sources of health care,” Pintor-Marin said in a statement after the hearing.
For example, some of these new FQHC patients may include the 190,000 women -- 145,000 of whom are of childbearing age, according to state figures -- that picked up Medicaid coverage since the federal Affordable Care Act expanded government coverage in 2014. According to Planned Parenthood, some 295,000 women of reproductive age still lack insurance.
Legislators, led by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), have fought each year for the funding to be reinstated -- even if it didn’t pay for abortions -- only to have Christie veto their bills with calls for fiscal austerity. (However, while running for the GOP presidential nomination, Christie bragged about the cuts and said they reflected his opposition to abortion.)
Beck suggested she would join Weinberg’s cause advocating for the additional funding if she thought women were not getting the care they needed. “I haven’t seen evidence of that,” she said. “We want to make sure men and women get access to the care they need, no matter what [political] party we are in.”
Advocates for Planned Parenthood have also noted that, since the closures, rates for some sexually transmitted diseases have gone up. The increases in syphilis and other conditions raised questions for Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio, (D-Mercer), on Monday, and Beck and Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) at Tuesday’s hearing.
Bennett explained that the larger numbers could reflect greater self-reporting or more effective screenings. “We cannot identify any correlation between any family planning clinic-closings and the higher rate of STDs,” she told the Senate panel.