Shaheen seeks federal help in replacing money for reproductive health care cut from state budget

By: - June 25, 2021 1:58 pm
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen speaks at a microphone during a Senate subcommittee meeting

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she is concerned about the budget’s proposed abortion ban and yearly audits of health care centers. (Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Friday she has asked the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services to replace money for reproductive health care that lawmakers cut from the state budget they passed Thursday. In a follow-up virtual roundtable with several New Hampshire health care providers, Shaheen said she is also concerned about the budget’s proposed abortion ban and yearly audits of health care centers.

“To have the Legislature in New Hampshire limit care for women that will have not just an impact on women but on their families . . . is not just disappointing; I think it’s despicable,” Shaheen said. “This is clearly people who don’t understand the ramifications of what they have done.”

Tess Stack Kuenning, president and CEO of the Bi-State Primary Care Association, said the state’s 14 health care centers serve 120,000 patients. The six providers at Friday’s roundtable said the budget’s ramifications will include higher costs and longer wait times for low-income patients, increased unplanned pregnancies, and potentially a decrease in early detection of other health problems.

“Reproductive health services are the gateway really to many other important health services (like) health screenings, (gastrointestinal) screenings, hypertension, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and so on,” said Ken Gordon, CEO of Coos County Family Health Care Services. “To limit access to reproductive health services means limiting access to these other services as well.” 

The budget now headed to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk includes some money for family planning centers, but Republican lawmakers declined requests from Democrats and the state Department of Health and Human Services to add $1.2 million in stopgap funding to cover a temporary lapse in federal money that centers saw under a Trump administration rule. The Biden administration is working on reversing that rule, but the federal funding isn’t expected to resume until at least December and likely later.

In 2019, when centers refused the federal Title X money rather than stop counseling their patients on abortion options as the Trump rule required, the Legislature replaced the funding with state money. 

In her letter, Shaheen asked U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to consider resuming funding to the centers immediately after the rule is changed rather than requiring a long application process. She also proposed finding federal money elsewhere to cover the centers’ budget gap. 

A second funding restriction within the budget would require abortion providers to prove to the state annually they are not using state or federal money for abortions. Providers said federal law already requires them to show they pay for abortion care with private money, but fear annual state audits will be time consuming and pull staff away from patient care.

Shaheen characterized the audits as “nothing more than an effort to harass family planning efforts.”

The budget also includes several new restrictions on abortion care, namely a ban on abortions at 24 weeks unless the mother’s health is at risk. Unlike similar bans in other states, New Hampshire’s proposed ban does not include an exception for a nonviable fetus, mandates ultrasounds for all abortions, and calls for a 3½- to 7-year prison sentence for doctors who break the law.

Until COVID-19 hit, the Equality Health Center in Concord performed ultrasounds on all pregnant patients. When pandemic precautions required health care providers everywhere to limit in-person appointments, the center re-evaluated its use of ultrasounds and concluded they are invasive and not medically necessary. 

“No one asked any of the providers here whether or not (mandated ultrasounds) are good client care or not,” said Dalia Vidunas, the center’s executive director. “And it’s not good client care.”

They are also expensive, Vidunas said. The center had been able to reduce the cost for its low-income clients to $120. Vidunas said that cost will increase without the Title X money.

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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.