Centers that offer family planning and cancer screenings to thousands of women and men may soon lose all state funding, resulting in clinic closings or reduced services in Millville, Bridgeton and Atlantic City.
Legislative Democrats restored budget cuts of $7.5 million, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the spending Friday afternoon. Unless Democratic lawmakers succeed in leading a vote to override the governor's veto, funding for the centers will run out.
While the cuts will affect 58 centers statewide, Cumberland County, with high rates of teen pregnancy and unemployment, is likely to lose two of its three health centers, in Millville and Bridgeton, both run by provider FamCare, Inc.
Atlantic City's branch of Planned Parenthood would face service cuts, possibly closing its doors three days a week.
"Nothing will happen immediately, as far as changes in service," said Lynn Brown, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey. "The key word is ‘eventually.' Eventually, we may have to curtail service in that way."
Marilyn Lindenmuth, director of health services at FamCare, Inc., the Gloucester County-based provider, said Monday that the company also expects to close its center on the Rowan University campus, bringing total closings to three of six area facilities.
But Lindenmuth said she wanted to maintain one center each in Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties.
"The cuts represent 25 percent of our budget, around $500,000," Lindenmuth said. FamCare's Vineland center would extend its hours, becoming the only family-planning clinic in the county.
No sooner had Marguerite Ball grown familiar with the free health clinic in her area of Cumberland County, than she learned its potential fate.
Ball, 53, of Millville, has no health insurance, but said she makes appointments at the North High Street branch of FamCare. "This is the only place I can come when I have no coverage," she said Monday. "This is the main doctor for me right now."
While the centers specialize in family planning and provide contraception, patients also receive routine gynecological exams, prenatal care, tests for high blood pressure, anemia and diabetes, breast and cervical cancer screening, and HIV testing and counseling.
Renee Troyano, a 36-year-old resident of Buena Vista Township, no longer needs the availability of low-cost women's health centers - but she remembers when she did.
"Back before I had my job all nailed down, and I didn't have coverage, I absolutely used the free clinics as a way to make sure I was getting regular health check-ups," she said.
The battle over funding for the centers has become an unexpected last stand for opponents of Christie's budget cuts. The line-item has also been characterized as an ideological struggle between the Republican governor and women's health advocates, who remember the governor making a campaign video message in October 2009 highlighting his personal commitment to women's health services such as mammograms.
But Christie said he rejected the connection.
"Family planning has nothing to do with mammograms, and don't put the two of them together," he told a radio interviewer in June.
Planned Parenthood reported providing 70,000 mammograms and other exams for breast cancer last year.
"This cruel and heartless veto is the height of arrogance and irresponsibility," said Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Union, Middlesex, Somerset. "Restoring these programs would have saved lives and money and kept New Jerseyans - especially women - from needlessly dying from diseases that can be treated with proper screening. But Gov. Christie clearly has another agenda."
Stender and Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, have tried to make clear that many centers, including FamCare, do not provide abortion services.
"We've tried to get that message out," Riley said last month. "But the rhetoric from the other side has been quite loud, and quite uninformed."
The budget cuts resulted in $2.7 million in lost funding for the centers across southern New Jersey, according to figures provided by Planned Parenthood.
Despite a powerful advocacy campaign to persuade - or shame - the governor out of targeting women's health services with his fiscal 2011 budget cuts, Christie said earlier this month that he remained "unconvinced" of whether to renew that funding. He came to the decision last week, and issued a letter in which he described the centers as "duplicative funding," suggesting patients could get family-planning and other screening services elsewhere.
State Health Commissioner Poonam Alaigh told a state Senate panel last week that federally qualified health centers statewide could help pick up the slack for 40,000 displaced patients.
But the list of budget cuts show those federally qualified health centers are not safe from reductions: Two of the providers proposed to fill the void also lost funding. Those providers have centers in Jersey City and North Hudson.
Patients such as Ball said they cannot understand Christie's decision.
"Maybe I can make it over to Vineland or another center, but it's a haul. The fact is, these centers are a safety-net for low-income or uninsured women and families," she said.
Brown said Ball's situation is similar to that of many other patients of all ages.
"It's parallel to losing a whole medical service provider for many people," Brown said.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-6th, called Christie's planned cuts "penny-wise, pound-foolish," and reiterated that the state would lose $90 million in matching federal funds when it stops funding those services.
Despite being described frequently as "women's clinics," more men are now using the targeted centers, particularly since the recession, Pallone said.
"I've seen businessmen in suits showing up at those centers," Pallone said last week.
Advocates said the prospect of reduced women's health education and outreach would lead to an outcome many lawmakers who supported the cuts would hate: an increase in abortions.
"You can't stop people from having sex," Lindenmuth said. "We know we will see the consequence of these budget cuts in the very near future."
For Joyce Kurzweil, an executive vice president with Planned Parenthood's chapter in southern New Jersey, Christie's stance reminded her of positions of former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
"I have to hope it's not an ideological battle for Christie, but I'm not sure," she said. "Because I remember those periods where women's health was not seen as a priority. This would be a disappointing return to the dark days, after everything we've struggled to provide in the last three decades."
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