Threats To Funding For Family Planning Leave Local Women's Centers Divided

The fight to restore family planning funding to the state budget has resumed for the seventh year in a row, but support for such programs is far from unanimous among local women’s organizations.

Health centers offering family planning services statewide have slashed hours, staff and resources since Gov. Chris Christie pulled $7.45 million in funding in 2010. Two state-run facilities in Pemberton Township and Mount Holly closed later that year as a result, and four others have since shut down across the state, according to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.

The New Jersey Department of Health's proposed budget for 2018 includes $28 million for community health centers for care of the uninsured and underinsured; $12 million for cancer screenings, including breast and cervical exams; $4.3 million for STD prevention and testing; and $2.1 million for family planning, according to Donna Leusner, director of communications for the department.

The sole family planning center in Burlington County is Planned Parenthood on Route 130 in Delran. The facility offers birth control, HIV, STD and pregnancy testing, LGBT services and abortion referrals.

There are no abortion clinics in the county. The closest facilities that perform abortions are Planned Parenthood centers in Camden and Hamilton, Mercer County, and the Cherry Hill Women's Center.

State legislators must approve the 2018 budget by June 30. Christie has vetoed attempts by lawmakers to restore family planning funding since it was stripped away.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said the state has an obligation to support health care services provided for women by Planned Parenthood.

"We may disagree on some of the services that Planned Parenthood provides, but there is no debate on the fact that by continuously removing this funding from the state budget, we have negatively impacted the health care options for many New Jersey women," Singleton said. "I will continue to be a voice for their restoration in the state budget.”

Republican Sens. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, and Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Medford, could not be reached for comment. 

Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing pro-life public policy, attends one or two state budget hearings every year. Tasy said no woman has come forward at a hearing to say her access to care has been put in jeopardy since family planning funding was cut.

"Regardless of where people stand on abortion, a majority of citizens do not want their taxes to fund abortion," she said. 

Some facilities like Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers may soon face additional cuts at the federal level. On Thursday, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that lifted a rule put in place by President Barack Obama that barred states from withholding federal funds through Title X, a federal grant program supporting family planning and preventive services, to organizations regardless of whether they perform abortions.

“We don’t know how this is all going to pan out. But we do know that low-income folks are going to be affected,” said Casey Olesko, communications manager for Planned Parenthood of Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey.

A majority of Planned Parenthood patients live with incomes at 150 percent of the federal poverty level or less, the equivalent of $36,375 a year for a family of four in 2016, according to Planned Parenthood.

The agency's facilities receive funding through Title X, which is designed to prioritize the needs of low-income and uninsured families. 

Planned Parenthood officials say more than 90 percent of services include cancer screenings, birth control, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Diseases like breast and cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections are on the rise nationwide, Olesko said. 

In Burlington County, the number of cases of breast cancer in women increased by 20.4 percent from 2009 to 2013, far higher than the state increase of 5.2 percent in breast and cervical cancer cases combined, according to Planned Parenthood. 

The number of bacterial sexually transmitted diseases has increased by 37.4 percent in Burlington County from 2009 to 2015, compared with 35 percent statewide.

Olesko said there is "no causal link" between the spike in diseases and the closing of health centers in the state.

“Regardless of the causes, facts are facts, and family planning centers address those issues,” she said.

Besides Planned Parenthood, some facilities in the county offer nonmedical support to pregnant women. Most provide medical referrals as needed.

First Way Life Center in Burlington City offers pregnancy testing, doctor referrals, and supplies for babies and mothers. The center is funded through donations from the community.

“Besides being a pro-life facility, we go a step further to help women who have chosen life for their baby,” First Way volunteer Karen Pierce said.

Pierce said she would rather see women get support from facilities that do not offer abortions. She supports eliminating funding for abortion providers at the federal and state levels, although Title X funds cannot legally be used to perform abortions.

“Abortion is not women’s care. It’s killing a baby,” she said.

Abba Pregnancy Crisis Center in Palmyra offers pregnancy testing, counseling, childbirth classes and baby supplies to young women experiencing unplanned pregnancy. It also maintains a 24-hour hotline and group home for pregnant teenagers with parental consent.

While there are no teens currently living in the group home, Abba director Dixie Patterson said she receives frequent calls from women between the ages of 19 and 25 who already have one child and need a place to stay temporarily. She said many faith-based facilities like Abba have closed across the country, mirroring the closing of other health centers. Abba is funded by churches, fundraisers and private donations, and does not receive any state or federal money. 

Because Planned Parenthood accepts payment through insurance, Medicaid, Medicare or self-pay, Patterson said she doesn’t feel the government should supply funding.

“It wouldn’t bother me at all if Planned Parenthood was defunded,” she said. “Free services are available at a number of places.”

Tracey Rubin, a nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood serving primarily locations in Hamilton and Trenton, said many patients do not receive health screenings or preventive care because they are concerned about costs.

She hopes funding will be restored so health centers can devote more resources to keeping women healthy.

“I see patients who have endured pain and suffering because they thought they couldn’t afford care or get to a health center,” Rubin said. “As a clinician, I understand family planning services are not an optional add-on. They are critical.”

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