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NH councilors backpedal on defunding family planning, abortion clinics; Sununu urges re-vote

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 9/22/2021 10:59:05 PM
Modified: 9/22/2021 10:59:09 PM

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on New Hampshire Bulletin.

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu said Tuesday he is willing to bring back the recently rejected family planning contracts for another vote after learning two of the four Republican executive councilors who voted against the contracts cited insufficient information from the state Department of Health and Human Services as the reason for their vote.

The department pushed back against that assertion Tuesday, saying councilors received the contracts a week in advance and that officials had contacted each councilor to address concerns. “The department always stands ready to address any issues and questions councilors may have about the details and oversight in each contract,” spokesman Jake Leon said.

The three centers defunded in the 4-1 vote — Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center — provide low-cost care to 12,000 people, about 80% of the people who receive cancer screenings, birth control and STD testing and treatment through the state’s family planning program.

They also provide abortion services; other family planning centers that do not offer abortion had their contracts approved.

Councilor Janet Stevens told the New Hampshire Bulletin this week that the contracts had insufficient details and oversight, but she did not raise that concern with the department during the council meeting. She declined to say whether she had sought that information from the department prior to the vote.

Councilor Joseph Kenney told the Bulletin on Tuesday he did not have the financial documentation he needed to support the contracts. Kenney did not raise the lack of documentation at the meeting, though another councilor did. He did not say if he shared his concern with the department prior to the meeting.

Asked Tuesday about the councilors’ statements, Sununu’s office raised the possibility of a revote.

“While the council voted the contracts down, it is still possible to bring them forward again if the councilors believe their concerns can be addressed even further,” the office’s statement said. “And the governor is hopeful the councilors will see that the department has done thorough work to address their concerns.”

Leon said the contracts clearly state what services are covered in the contracts and how the department monitors compliance.

Asked about her vote, Stevens said in a written statement that she “cannot in good conscience vote in favor of any proposal brought before the council that is void of detail, oversight and clear language.” She did not respond to a message asking what details and oversight she was seeking.

The contracts Stevens voted against for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center, however, mirror contracts she supported for four other family planning providers — Coos Family Health Care, Concord Hospital Family Care, Amoskeag Health and Lamprey Health Care. The big difference is that the providers she voted against offer abortion services, while the others don’t but may refer patients to abortion providers.

Leon said the Attorney General’s Office reviewed the contracts prior to the meeting and found them to be in compliance with the new state law. And the state Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General John Formella told councilors during the meeting that state audits, required under a new state law, showed all providers were using only private money — not taxpayer dollars — for abortion services, as is required by state and federal law.

Stevens asked only one question about the contracts during the meeting: whether the providers had given the department what it needed to assess compliance with the financial separation of services. Department officials said they had.

Kenney said in an email Tuesday that questions over that financial separation of services prompted him to vote as Stevens did, against the contracts for Planned Parenthood, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center but also for the others.

He pointed to the new law, which says contracts will be denied if a provider is found to be using state money for abortion services and then refuses to physically separate abortion services to another location. Kenney said he needed “financial documentation” from the department showing the three providers were not commingling funds; the department’s verbal assurances were insufficient.

Discussion during the meeting indicated the Department of Health and Human Services planned to provide councilors a written report of its audit results last Friday, two days after the meeting. In the meantime, three department officials addressed questions about the audits during the meeting.

Sununu’s office said he put the contracts on last Wednesday’s agenda, prior to the completion of the department’s written report, for two reasons. The contracts contained retroactive payments to providers who have already provided the health care services without compensation for months. And he believed the department had the information needed to “clearly articulate” that no federal or state money was being used for abortions.

The other two councilors who voted against the contracts made their objections to the contracts clear during the meeting.

Ted Gatsas said he believes “a woman has the right to do what she wants to do.” But he doesn’t believe the family planning providers should make the morning-after contraception pill available to people under 17 without parental consent.

Councilor Cinde Warmington, the only councilor to vote for the contracts with Planned Parenthood, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center, told Gatsas those individuals can get the morning-after pill from other health care providers if they can get an appointment, which is less likely to be provided with a sliding-scale fee according to income.

“The availability of the morning-after pill is not a reason to vote down our entire reproductive health care system for women all across our state and harm birth outcomes for children all around our state,” Warmington said.

Councilor David Wheeler said he does not believe reproductive health care providers are capable of using only private — not public — dollars for abortions unless they perform them with separate staff, in separate locations.

Leon said the department does not currently have alternative funding to keep Planned Parenthood, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center in the family planning program. If funding becomes available, the department will bring new contracts forward, he said.

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