Council hands Sununu, health care providers fourth defeat on family planning contracts

By: - July 27, 2022 2:24 pm

Protesters called on the Executive Council Wednesday to approve funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center, which had provided 70 to 80 percent of the state’s subsidized reproductive health care. The council voted down the contracts, 4-1, along party lines. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Executive Council Republicans voted a fourth time in under a year against funding for three reproductive health care centers that provide low-cost cancer screenings, STD testing and treatment, and contraception to more than 17,000 Granite Staters. 

Following the vote, Gov. Chris Sununu, who has said he supports funding Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Lovering Health Center, and Equality Health Center, acknowledged a different outcome will almost certainly require a change in executive councilors. But he stopped short of saying he’d campaign for replacements or against the four sitting Republicans.

“I keep bringing (the contracts) back … but I think they’ve made it pretty clear that regardless of timing, regardless of what we put in there, regardless of the explanations that we give and the understanding that we’ve kind of pushed upon them, they’re not really willing to move on.”

He added: “I’m never going to support or endorse or not endorse candidates simply on one issue or one contract, or one policy, or anything like that. But in terms of these contracts, with the current council, they’re gonna have a challenge moving forward.”

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette and Trish Tilley, director of the department’s Division of Public Health Services, told executive councilors Wednesday that no state or federal money was used for abortions. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Councilors Joe Kenney, Janet Stevens, David Wheeler, and Ted Gatsas did not state a reason Wednesday for voting down the $1 million in contracts. They have previously objected to giving public money to centers that provide abortions, rejecting assurances from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office that audits have shown none are using state or federal money for that care.

The three centers had provided 70 to 80 percent of care through the state’s Family Planning Program, which subsidizes reproductive health care for low-income residents with a focus on people who are low-income, uninsured, underinsured, adolescents, LGTBQ+, refugees, and people at risk of unintended pregnancy because of substance abuse. 

The council’s vote leaves just four providers providing that low-cost care: Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin, Lamprey Health Care in Newmarket, Amoskeag Health in Manchester, and CAP Belknap-Merrimack in Laconia. The contracts with three of those on Wednesday’s agenda passed.

Trish Tilley, director of the Division of Public Health Services at Health and Human Services, told councilors the department has been unable to recruit alternative providers.  

Councilor Cinde Warmington is both the council’s lone Democrat and member to vote for the contracts. 

“We know that women’s services as a whole are under assault. There is considerable discussion in Washington about limiting access to contraception,” she said ahead of the vote. “These services that we’re talking about are about contraception, and about sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, and about cancer screenings, and not about abortion services. … These services are more critical than ever in our state.”

Following the vote, Dalia Vidunas, executive director of Equality Health Center in Concord, said the vote may force them to increase the sliding fee scale and ask patients to pay more. The contract would have provided the center $463,000 through December 2023.

“I think it’s reaching a point where we are going to have to make the changes,” Vidunas said.  “And I know I’ve said this in the past before, but that’s because we really want to keep our sliding fee scale as low as possible because so many of our patients use it and it’s so important to the community. There’s really no way we could afford (the current price reductions) without this assistance.”

She said abortion care represents about 20 percent of the center’s work but that those patients often seek other services following pregnancy termination, such as contraception and cancer screenings.

Kayla Montgomery, vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said abortions make up less than 7 percent of its work across New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. It would have received $306,450 in its contract.

Montgomery noted the vote comes as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has prompted more people to seek long-acting birth control. 

“And that’s why this vote is so outrageous, because these four executive councilors continue to not listen to facts and reason in science, and they’re putting their personal politics above everything,” Montgomery said. “And it just goes to show that these extreme politicians want to ban abortion. They want to make it harder to get birth control. But we’re not going to back down.”

Stevens did not comment or ask questions prior to her vote. Wheeler voted against all the family planning contacts after asking if even those who don’t provide abortions can refer patients to providers. 

Gatsas reiterated his objections against minors being able to access emergency contraception, such as Plan B, without parental consent. Tilley and Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette told Gatsas that emergency contraception is available to minors at pharmacies without parental consent.

“However, if a teen were to come into a family planning provider, they would receive counseling and education and health care services and the services of Plan B if needed,” Tilley said. “But I do think it’s important to note that more than 90 percent of the participants in our … planning program are over the age of 18.”

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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]