Republican councilors vote down contracts for three reproductive health centers

Despite Sununu’s support for provider funding, vote could prove ‘a thorn in his side’ during election season

By: - September 15, 2021 5:53 pm
Gov. Sununu speaks at the executive council meeting

Gov. Sununu speaks during the Executive Council meeting at the St. Joseph Academic Center in Nashua on Wednesday. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In a 4-1 party-line vote, the Executive Council’s Republicans voted Wednesday to defund three reproductive health care providers because they perform abortions. 

The four councilors voted against the contracts despite confirmation from the attorney general and commissioner of Health and Human Services the three providers are complying with a new state law requiring they use private – not state – money for abortions.

House Democrats were among those to immediately blast the vote and announced they had filed legislation to repeal the 24-week abortion ban that Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law this summer. And while Sununu issued a statement condemning the council’s vote, the Democrats are already tying both the ban and the defunding to him ahead of his anticipated run for the U.S. Senate or a fourth term as governor. 

“First, Chris Sununu & NH Republicans rolled back repro rights in their anti-choice budget,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen tweeted. “Now, they’ve defunded health care centers women rely on for cancer screenings & vital care. Low-income women in NH will be hit hardest by this shameful vote.”

That strategy makes sense for pro-choice Democrats, said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“Abortion has the potential to be a thorn in (Sununu’s) side if he runs for office,” Scala said. “I think today that thorn just went a little deeper.”

The three providers denied contracts Wednesday – Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Equality Health Center of Concord, and Lovering Health Center on the Seacoast – provide 80 percent of services for the low-income, uninsured, and underinsured Granite Staters who rely on the state’s Family Planning Program. Those services include birth control, prenatal care, cancer screenings, and STD testing and treatment.

At issue for Councilors David Wheeler, Ted Gatsas, Joe Kenney, and Janet Stevens was not the preventative care but abortions. Wheeler in particular rejected assurances from Attorney General John Formella and Commissioner Lori Shibinette of Health and Human Services that all three providers were complying with a compromise engineered by Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wofeboro Republican, during budget negotiations.

House Republicans agreed to drop their demand that reproductive health care providers with state contracts physically separate abortion care from their other services. In exchange, Bradley’s compromise required providers to instead undergo annual state audits showing they are financially separating those services, which has long been required by federal law. 

During budget negotiations, Bradley said he had no reason to think providers were commingling funds but offered the compromise as an “insurance policy to ensure it doesn’t happen.”

Wheeler was not reassured or persuaded. He said the budget did require a physical separation and said without one, providers are using state dollars to indirectly pay for abortions when they pay the rent or light bill. 

The council took two other votes related to family planning funding, one a 3-2 vote to award contracts to providers who can refer patients to abortion providers, with Gatsas and Wheeler voting no. And they voted, 3-2, to deny the Community Action Program of Belknap and Merrimack counties a family planning contract, with Warmington and Kenney casting the two losing votes.

Warmington pushed back during the meeting, asking Shibinette if defunding the providers would delay detection of cancers and STDs and jeopardize the state’s track record of having among the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the country. 

“Is a vote against family planning a vote to increase unintended pregnancies and teenage pregnancies and therefore abortions?” she asked. Shibinette said yes.

Following the meeting, which was held at the St. Joseph Academic Center in Nashua, Warmington called councilors’ focus on abortion intentionally misleading.

“This whole discussion about abortion is just conflating the issue,” she said. “It’s a distraction so they don’t have to take accountability for the fact they are defunding health care for the women of New Hampshire.”

Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the Equality Health Center, said the vote will force them to limit their reduced cost services and rethink what services they can provide at all. 

Shaheen asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services in June to replace federal family planning money the reproductive health care providers lost when they refused to consent to a new Trump administration “gag rule” prohibiting them from not only performing abortions but referring patients to abortion providers. 

The Democratically controlled state Legislature replaced that money two years ago, but Republicans declined to this year. The Biden administration is working to reverse the rule, but providers don’t expect the money to return before March. Shaheen’s office asked the agency again this week to cover that gap for New Hampshire providers in the meantime. 

Elizabeth Canada, advocacy manager for the Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire Action Fund, called the vote shameful – and harmful.

“They … chose to take away access to 80 percent of patients and family planning programs,” she said. “This is flying in the face of public health. This entire debate comes from an anti-reproductive rights, anti-reproductive health perspective, because, again, none of these funds are used for abortion care. They are used to support and cover care for lower-income and uninsured Granite Staters for preventative reproductive health care.”

In his written statement following the vote, Sununu said, “I brought these contracts forward because I support them.” He added: “They protect women’s health, and it is the right thing to do. Today’s action to vote down funding like cancer screenings and other women’s health services is incredibly disappointing and not something I agree with.”

Sununu identifies as pro-choice but has what the pro-choice community sees as a mixed voting record on abortion rights.

During his time on the Executive Council, Sununu voted for contracts with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. But he also voted against one. He is now facing criticism for signing a budget that has the 24-week abortion ban and a requirement that all women seeking an abortion at any stage get an ultrasound. In doing so, he said he could not veto a whole budget over the ban, and has since said he’d be open to revisiting the ultrasound requirement. 

Democrats won’t make that distinction, Scala said. 

“Yes, executive councilors have independence of the governor. That’s all true,” Scala said. “But I could imagine people asking, ‘OK, he’s the leader of the party: Why didn’t he do more to convince the councilors to (vote) otherwise?’”

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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. Email: [email protected]