Women’s health care funding survives, but N.J. advocates still wary

Opponents and supporters of Planned Parenthood are shown demonstrating in Philadelphia in 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Opponents and supporters of Planned Parenthood are shown demonstrating in Philadelphia in 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Advocates for women’s health care across the country welcomed a federal judge’s decision last week to block a controversial funding reform proposal by the Trump administration; the advocates said it would severely compromise operations at clinics that provide abortions and other family health services, and harm patient care.

But that doesn’t mean they are dialing back on efforts to protect Title X, the federal funding program that supports cancer screenings, birth control and other critical health care services for millions of low-income women nationwide, including some 100,000 in New Jersey. In New Jersey, Planned Parenthood advocates have scheduled a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, Monday as part of the national “Protect X” campaign.

On Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington State halted the Trump administration’s proposal to require health care providers that receive Title X funding to entirely separate abortion services from all other programs, with distinct facilities, budgeting and records. The changes would also have prevented recipients of Title X funds from recommending or referring patients for abortions anywhere.

While federal law already prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used for abortions, critics said additional protections were needed to ensure that Title X funds are properly segregated from other accounts. The federal Health and Human Services Department finalized regulations in February to further restrict its use and the changes were scheduled to take effect this coming Friday.

Abortion supporters, however, labeled the proposal a “gag rule” that they said would interfere with doctor-patient relationships and create significant extra costs for health care providers seeking to comply with the funding restrictions, possibly forcing some to close. Advocates in the Garden State rallied the public to oppose the plan, state leaders decried its potential impact, and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined a multistate lawsuit seeking to block the reform.

Pallone: ‘… a win for the rule of law’

“Progress in our lawsuit against HHS’s gag rule! A judge indicated that he’ll halt Trump’s efforts to limit access to critical health care & family planning services,” Grewal Tweeted Thursday. “Our work isn’t over. We’ll keep fighting for NJ’s Title X providers & patients they serve.”

Pallone called the decision a “win for the rule of law and those who rely on Title X for their reproductive health.”

Federal judge Stanley Bastian’s ruling Thursday involved a temporary injunction, which forced HHS to hold off implementing the proposed changes to Title X as litigation in other, related lawsuits proceeds. Bastian said advocates and healthcare providers had “submitted substantial evidence of harm” if the changes were to be implemented, and the Trump administration’s response had been “dismissive, speculative” and not based on court precedent, according to the New York Times.

It was not immediately clear if the federal Justice Department would appeal the ruling, but advocates aren’t taking any chances. “While a temporary injunction against the gag rule was issued this (last) week, the fight is not over; it is virtually certain that the Trump-Pence administration will appeal this ruling,” said Casey Olesko, with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.

“The Protect X campaign is mobilizing women’s health advocates to fight back against the Trump-Pence administration’s efforts to block access to reproductive health care,” Olesko said. The Action Fund is hosting Monday’s event with Pallone, part of a statewide campaign to give residents a chance to share their concerns directly with elected officials; last week the group held a meeting in Camden with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-New Jersey.

Funding is particularly important to NJ

The Garden State received $8.8 million from the Title X program last year — part of $286 million distributed nationwide — to pay for family planning, cancer screenings and other primary care for low-income women, men and children. The funding is distributed by the nonprofit New Jersey Family Planning League, which regrants the dollars to 47 providers, including Planned Parenthood affiliates, county health departments, hospital-based programs, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and other providers. (Gov. Phil Murphy has also provided $7.5 million through the state budget to support these programs.)

While all states receive some funding, the support is particularly important to New Jersey. It is one of 13 states in which more than 40% of women depend on facilities supported by Title X for contraception; nationwide, the average is 32%, according to a recent reportfrom the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health care policy. In the Garden State, two-thirds of the women served by these facilities are women of color, a demographic that has historically been underserved by the health care system.

Under Murphy, a Democrat, the state has strengthened support for women’s health care programs. In addition to reinstating the $7.5 million in annual funding — a budget line suspended by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican — Murphy expanded Medicaid coverage for family planning services and access to certain contraceptives. He has also joined other Democratic governors in protesting proposed regulatory reforms to Title X and Grewal has filed several legal challenges to a Trump administration proposal to permit some companies to not cover birth control in their employee health-insurance plans.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.