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.”

(Speaking at a town hall event last weekend, Phil Murphy, the only Democratic candidate who has officially declared his intention to run for governor, promised to restore this funding on “Day One,” according to a report in the Trentonian.)

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) recalled the late-night, sometimes ugly partisan battles in the Legislature to reinstate these controversial budget lines. She compared it to the child’s game of “Red Rover” and said that when women, and their supportive male colleagues, lock arms together they can withstand any force. “When we lose, we come out stronger,” Lampitt said.

Vainieri Huttle said she eagerly anticipated a victory by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and having a woman in the White House to advance progressive policies, similar to those championed in New Jersey. She said her bill to allow women to stock up on a full-year’s supply of birth control is another way the Garden State can lead by example.

“Why is it as women we can’t get insurance coverage for a year” of birth control supplies, she asked, noting that any number of long-term prescriptions are already issued in 90-day batches. The measure would require health insurance plans, self-insured organizations, the State Health Benefits Plan and other payers in New Jersey to cover the cost of a three-month supply at first, to be followed by a full-year’s worth if there were no adverse affects on the patient.

Planned Parenthood cited studies that show a 12-month supply of birth control reduces a woman’s odds of unintended pregnancy by 30 percent and cuts the likelihood of abortion by 46 percent. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended dispensing a full year’s worth of the drug in 2013, advocates said.

But the New Jersey Association of Health Plans, which represents nine health insurance companies operating here, said the bill is problematic. Coverage for birth control products is already quite broad, they said; New Jersey has required plans to pay for birth control for more than a decade, and the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act ensures that patients not be charged anything out-of-pocket for these prescriptions.

Unlike existing mandates that establish coverage levels and cost-sharing arrangements, this proposal would mandate something new — a 12-month supply of certain products. No other state or federal law currently requires policies to cover 12 months of any prescription, AHP said in a letter to the Assembly.

The insurance industry also raised concerns about the long-term use of any medications, and risks that might not be identified without more frequent check-ups. The proposal would also make it harder for patients to switch drug regimens or dosage and could result in waste and other problems if the medications are not properly stored, or are diverted and misused.

In addition, AHP noted the plan could saddle insurance providers with unfair costs. These companies depend in part on the monthly premiums paid by customers to fund patient care and, according to recent studies, nearly one in five insured individuals stopped paying monthly premium costs at some point in 2015, only to re-enroll in 2016. That means insurance companies would be on the hook for a full year’s worth of the drug, but might not recoup the premium revenue it needs to help cover these costs.