Executive Council rejects low-income reproductive health care contracts – again

By: - December 22, 2021 6:16 pm

Executive Councilors rejected family planning contracts that provide care to 12,000 of the 15,000 people in the state’s low-income family planning program. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated December 24, 2021 at 8:45 a.m. to include a comment from Councilor Janet Stevens following publication.

The Executive Council again rejected contracts with the state’s three largest providers of reproductive health care for low-income Granite Staters Wednesday in a 4-1 party line vote over objections to contraception, which is in the contract, and abortion, which isn’t.

The Department of Health and Human Services brought the contracts for Planned Parenthood Northern New England, Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center back to the council after no other agencies submitted bids to provide reproductive health care in all parts of the state, something required by the state’s family planning program. 

The three serve nearly 12,000 of the 15,000 men and women who rely on the reduced cost program for comprehensive reproductive health care that includes birth control, STD testing and treatment, family planning, and cancer screenings. They alone serve a large part of New Hampshire, including Concord, the Seacoast, and western part of the state. 

In a separate vote, the council supported contracts for three other family planning providers that serve the remaining 3,000 people; those providers do not provide abortions but do refer patients to the three providers denied contracts Wednesday.

Following the vote, the leaders of Planned Parenthood Northern New England, Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center said without state funding, they would “keep their doors open” but have to increase the cost of care to low-income patients.

“When you figure that between us three providers, we provide almost 80% of all family planning services, what’s going to happen to those thousands of people who can no longer access those services?” said Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the Equality Health Center in Concord. “There’s a reason why (New Hampshire has) the lowest pregnancy rate. And that’s because we have effective family planning services, and they just decimated that.”

In response to questions from Councilor Cinde Warmington, the only councilor to support the contracts, Patricia Tilley, director of the Division of Public Health Services, said denying the state funding to these providers will put a greater burden on other health care centers, which are already overwhelmed with demand. She said the vote could also lead to negative outcomes like cancer and infertility for those who forego care.

Councilor Janet Stevens was among the four Republicans who voted down the contracts in September and again Wednesday after raising concerns that she did not have all the information she needed. Aware she was seeking more information, Sandi Denoncour, the executive director of Lovering Health Center in Greenland, located in Stevens’ district, tried to reach her. 

“I will say that right now that I am frustrated and angry that we made multiple attempts to outreach to Councilor Stevens, who has not responded to any of our phone calls or emails,” Denoncour said.

Some councilors suggested they’d be willing to revisit the contracts if the state provides additional details of the “corrective actions” it has requested of the three providers following a newly required audit.  Those post-audit requests seek more detailed policy and procedure manuals and additional information about staff training, and do not reflect a concern that the centers are misusing public money, Meredith Telus, director of program planning and integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services, told councilors.

She said auditors confirmed the providers are using private – not state dollars – for abortions, as has been long required by federal and state law. 

Denoncour said she is doubtful Stevens was serious about reconsidering her vote. “We would have been happy to share with her what our corrective actions were, what the findings meant, and our plans to rectify them,” Denoncour said. “I do not believe that it’s a genuine request for information to influence this decision. I think it’s a completely political block to distance yourself from the decision (to reject the contract.)”

Stevens did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication but in an email afterward, said the council had tabled, not rejected the contracts, and asked the Bulletin to correct its story. The Bulletin informed Stevens the contracts were in fact rejected. 

Should the council take another vote on the contracts, a different outcome seems unlikely. The Republican councilors voiced the same concerns when they  voted down the contracts Wednesday as they did in September.

Councilor Ted Gatsas maintained his objection to the centers providing the morning after contraceptive pill to “14 year olds” without parental permission, something pharmacies also do. He wasn’t dissuaded by arguments that purchasing the contractive pill is no different than minors buying condoms without parental permission. 

“We don’t have any complaints about young men and teenage boys being able to buy condoms,” Warmington fired back. “This is once again an attack on women and controlling women. They need (the morning after pill) to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and what you’re talking about is letting a 14 year old get pregnant instead. That is just irresponsible.”

Councilor David Wheeler reiterated his disbelief that the three providers, which he called “abortion mills,” could financially separate abortion services as long as they provided abortions and reproductive health care in the same building. A receptionist, he cited as an example, would take calls for both sets of services. 

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the state does not pay for receptionists. “It doesn’t matter,” Wheeler told her.

Kayla Montgomery of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England called the vote “shameful.”

“Once again, four executive counselors have chosen to reject public health experts and put their own personal politics before the health of our state,” she said. “The rejection of these critical funds harm the delivery of essential health care for lower income and marginalized Granite Staters. There were no unanswered questions today. But these counselors once again chose to negatively contribute to the public health landscape during a COVID surge.”

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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]