Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight

They also back Planned Parenthood’s proposal for insurance companies to cover a year’s worth of birth control at once

For nearly seven years Democratic state lawmakers, led by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, have waged an unsuccessful battle to reinstate millions in annual funding for women’s healthcare services that Gov. Chris Christie declined to include in New Jersey’s budget when he took office.

But legislative leaders promised that pattern is destined to change — just as soon as a new governor takes office, in January 2018.

On Thursday Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) pledged to restore the nearly $7.5 million budget line, which had been included by governors in both parties for years to help pay for cancer screenings, treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and more; the funding was not used for abortion services. State officials have insisted that, even with less funding, these services are still available at various low-cost clinics.

The two leaders joined Weinberg and other top Democrats, and at least one Republican, at a State House event sponsored by Planned Parenthood to celebrate the organization’s 100th birthday, laud Weinberg’s leadership, and commit to including the money in future budgets. Christie eliminated the funding in 2010 in what he described as an effort to cut costs, although later during his failed presidential run he attributed it to his opposition to abortion.

“There’s a new day at the end of the tunnel. Finally,” Weinberg said, surrounded by cheering admirers in pink T-shirts.

The legislative group also offered its support to a measure backed by Planned Parenthood that would require health insurance companies to pay for up to a year’s worth of birth control at once, which advocates said will reduce unintended pregnancies and nearly cut in half the likelihood of abortion. Representatives of the health insurance industry oppose the plan, which they said is unnecessary and unprecedented nationwide. (Insurance companies must cover birth control and can’t charge women extra out-of-pocket for these prescriptions, according to existing state and federal law.) 

The legislation (A-2297) — sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), Marlene Caride (D-Bergen) and Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) — was approved by the full Assembly Thursday largely along party lines. The measure now awaits a vote in the full Senate. Efforts to advance the issue in past years failed. 

Sweeney, Prieto and others praised Planned Parenthood for its tireless advocacy over the years and the important role the organization plays in providing healthcare. Planned Parenthood now operates 26 health centers in New Jersey, which serve more than 100,000 women, men and teens, organizers said. But, with a cumulative loss of more than $45 million since 2010, Planned Parenthood has said it has been forced to close a half-dozen other centers. (In FY2011, Christie also declined to include another $1 million for women’s services, a onetime investment that would have provided a $9 million match through the federal Medicaid program.)

Prieto said Thursday that Democrats tried “year in and year out” to restore the healthcare money through supplementary budget measures, but failed to attract enough Republican support to overcome a potential veto by Christie. “But this administration, it’s on its last leg. And we will get this in there,” he said.
State officials have defended the governor’s funding of these services over the years, noting that family planning, cancer screenings and other services are available at little cost from 90 Federally Qualified Health Care facilities, among other sites. Some 147,000 women of reproductive age also gained health insurance since the 2014 expansion of Medicaid, which covers birth control and other preventative care at no cost to the patient. The current state budget includes more than $40 million for FQHCs, family planning and cancer screenings, they said.

But Sweeney said the FQHCs can’t possibly handle the additional volume and promised to help Planned Parenthood restore more robust service. “We will never back down on our commitment to funding this organization,” he said. “Leadership here is committed and we will get this done.