Proposed restrictions on reproductive health care funding loom large in budget debate

By: - May 3, 2021 6:20 am
State house dome

House Bill 1255 would amend an area in New Hampshire statute titled “Teachers’ Loyalty.” (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated on May 3, 2021 at 8 a.m.

The pandemic left Rep. Joshua Query unemployed and underinsured – and then in a medical crisis when a former partner called to say he had exposed Query to HIV. Query could afford only one option: Planned Parenthood.

The medical team not only charged Query little to nothing for a screening and blood work, it helped Query get the $12,000 monthly medication needed to fight an exposure for free. At the end of the three-month course of treatment, Query, who had initially tested potentially positive for HIV, tested negative.

“It was really because of them that I was able to get the health care that I needed,” said Query, a Manchester Democrat. “If they hadn’t been able to help me with that first round of medication, I could say, almost with certainty, that I would be positive for HIV.”

Query is worried thousands of low-income Granite Staters won’t have the same choice under the proposed state budget headed to the Senate Tuesday. It includes new restrictions on reproductive health care funding that will force some providers, including Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, to limit or eliminate care for nearly 12,000 people.

But unlike most legislation that’s filed as standalone bills, these restrictions are part of the budget, HB2. If they survive the Senate and remain in the final budget, they will become law unless Gov. Chris Sununu – who has a mixed voting record on funding Planned Parenthood – vetoes the entire budget.

Query intends to testify at Tuesday’s public hearing.

“I think one of the things that happens in the State House, whether it’s the Senate or the House of Representatives, is a lot of people don’t have a personal connection with Planned Parenthood,” Query said. “They either don’t know someone or they themselves haven’t been to the clinics. I hope that my testimony about how, while I was serving in the House of Representatives, I was without insurance, unemployed, and experiencing a health crisis, the only people to make sure this wasn’t a life sentence was Planned Parenthood.”

Sununu was noncommittal when asked Thursday whether he’d sign a state budget containing the restriction, which would require reproductive health care centers to relocate abortion services to a separate space, with separate staff. 

“It’s in the legislators’ hands, and we’ll kind of see where that debate goes,” he said. “As to the funding issue and the separation of the funding, those are two very separate pieces, and we’ll see where they go with each of those.” 

In the House version of the budget, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the Equality Health Center of Concord, and Lovering Health Center of Greenland will lose state funding if they don’t physically and financially separate abortion services, which make up about 7 percent of their cases, from all other family planning care. 

“The budget passed (by the House) completely dismantles New Hampshire’s family planning program,” said Kayla Montgomery of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “This program is good for public health and good for health equity. And yet, some lawmakers are so zealously against abortion rights that they are willing to sabotage public health in the pursuit of banning access to safe, legal abortion.”

The centers have told lawmakers they are using private money, not state funds, for abortions, as is required under state law. Moving abortion services to a separate setting, they said, would be so costly it would jeopardize their ability to continue providing cancer screenings, breast exams, birth control, STD testing, and other family planning care to the nearly 12,000 women they serve.

Annie Johnson, like Query, hopes sharing her story Tuesday will persuade senators to remove these restrictions from the budget. She began going to Planned Parenthood for birth control and routine checkups 15 years ago, when she couldn’t afford to go elsewhere. She still goes even though she can now pay because her care has been so good.

“It’s devastating,” said Johnson. “The politics that are pushing this budget, they don’t really care about our health or our needs. For me and others, this has taken on astronomical importance.”

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican and chair of the House Finance Committee that shepherded the amendment into the budget, disputed Johnson’s characterization. 

He said the committee fully funded Sununu’s recommended $810,000 for family planning services currently provided by several health care centers, including Planned Parenthood, the Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center. He said the committee voted to excuse hospitals that perform “medically necessary” abortions from the same funding requirements. It defeated an attempt to impose a so-called “gag order” prohibiting health care providers from counseling women and couples on abortion as an option. And it added $50,000 for new health care centers to provide family planning if Planned Parenthood, the Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center stop providing those services. And, Edwards added, there were no changes made to federal funding that allows Medicaid to be used for abortion.

Requiring the three abortion providers to physically and financially separate was non-negotiable, he said. Requiring physical separation, Edward said, would prevent centers from “fungible” funding, such as using state dollars to heat and light an exam room that is used for both cancer screenings and abortions.

“For years, Planned Parenthood has assured us that not a dime of our family planning money goes to pay for abortion,” Edwards said. “We’ve taken them at their word. But now that we have changed the language to make that absolutely clear, they’ve changed their story. Now they say it’s impossible.”

This is not lawmakers’ first effort to restrict abortion access, but they’ve mostly done so with standalone bills whose fate was not tied to the budget. And while there is precedent for restricting access by restricting funding, it’s been the Executive Council – not the Legislature – rejecting federal contracts for Planned Parenthood. During his time on the council, Sununu voted for the contract at times, but also against it. 

This strategy, backed by a petition signed by 153 House Republicans, is different. 

“They know if they put it in the budget, it is harder for the governor to veto,” said Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat who tried to defeat the budget amendment in the House. “I’m very curious how the governor is going to handle it. I can’t imagine he’s going to let it go through. If he does, he is really putting women in New Hampshire, especially poor women, (in a position) where they will have no health care services.” 

Edwards and Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, have told Senate Finance Committee members neither they nor the governor have a choice. In an email to the committee, Weyler said he would not have enough House votes to pass the budget in June if key provisions were removed. He did not cite the proposed funding restrictions, but Edwards did in an interview with the Bulletin Thursday. 

“This has 153 Republican House members’ support. That’s a communication to the Senate that this is really important to us,” Edwards said. “If the Senate removes this, it is likely that a large number of that 153 will walk out of the budget process, and that’s bad news because we won’t have a budget.” 

Edwards said he will be watching the Senate debate on Tuesday. Johnson will too. Putting reproductive health care at risk during a pandemic is especially upsetting, she said.

“This is a dishonest way to shut down abortion providers whose vast majority of services are not abortion-related,” she said. “This is shutting down STD screening, birth control, annual exams. They are very invested in driving this false narrative of health care.” 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.