Washington – Cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood is a priority for many congressional Republicans, but that effort is likely to stumble because other GOP lawmakers are hesitant to take aim at health clinics that are popular with their constituents.
Although the abortion services Planned Parenthood provides are bitterly opposed by conservative Republicans, polls show a majority of Americans support the organization. A recent Quinnipiac poll found overall, 31 percent of voters support cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood — while twice that many, 62 percent, oppose cutting off funding. Other polls show defunding Planned Parenthood would hurt the electoral chances of some Senate Republicans.
Nevertheless, the GOP is moving forward on a promise it has made to defund the organization. The cutoff could be enacted in several ways.
One is included in the GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which would contain a provision to cut off about $500 million in federal money to Planned Parenthood.
Most of that money, about 75 percent, is actually reimbursement for health care from Medicaid, the joint federal-state health plan for the poor. The rest of the money is grants the federal government gives for clinics to serve the uninsured. If the GOP succeeds in defunding Planned Parenthood, its facilities in Connecticut would lose about $2 million in grants and millions more in Medicaid payments.
In the House, Republicans can afford to lose fewer than two dozen votes from members of their own party if all Democrats vote in opposition.
Several Republican say defunding should be considered separately from an ACA repeal, because it would endanger the legislation.
“I think we should also separate out the Planned Parenthood issue from the broader healthcare issue. I think healthcare reform is controversial and complex enough without Planned Parenthood. Why put it in? It makes this whole exercise more difficult,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
In the Senate, the GOP can only spare a few defections, and at least two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they don’t want to defund Planned Parenthood.
“I, for one, do not believe that Planned Parenthood has any place in our deliberations on the Affordable Care Act,” Murkowski said in a recent speech to Alaska state lawmakers last week. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay for abortions, but I will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides.”
Although Planned Parenthood clinics may offer abortions, the federal Hyde Amendment, approved in 1977, bans state use of federal Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or the abortion is “necessary to save the life of the woman.” Seventeen states, including Connecticut, pay for abortions in other cases where it is deemed “medically necessary.”
Supporters of defunding Planned Parenthood say funds going to affiliated clinics right now would be diverted to other health clinics that would provide women with comprehensive health benefits – except abortion.
“Even if Planned Parenthood is denied certain federal funds, these dollars could still flow to the many other quallified health care providers that offer similar services as Planned Parenthood affiliates, plus additional services, without entanglement in elective abortion,” said Melanie Israel, research associate at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.
A lobbying blitz
To help undercut the GOP efforts, Planned Parenthood has launched a lobbying blitz and says it never has been so imperiled.
“This is the fight of our lives because we have never had a president who would sign a (defunding) bill. Before we had a president who would not,” said Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the New Haven-based Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
House Republicans already have taken a swipe at Planned Parenthood. The House on Feb. 17 approved a resolution that would reverse an Obama administration regulation that blocks states from withholding federal family-planning dollars from Planned Parenthood affiliates and other health centers that provide abortions.
But the resolution faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Blumenthal and Murphy joined nearly every other Democratic senator in sending a letter on March 1 to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging he ignore the resolution.
“Family planning services, like those provided at Planned Parenthood and other family planning centers, should be available to all women, no matter where they live or how much money they make,” the senators wrote. “It is critical that you take a stand and protect women’s health against efforts to undermine reproductive health care and roll back women’s health advances.”
To Yolen, defunding of the clinics is not as great a threat as GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which expanded the number of Americans on Medicaid and cut the number of uninsured.
Yolen said that 30,000, or half, of the 60,000 patients Planned Parenthood of New England treats every year are on Medicaid.
GOP plans to replace the Affordable Care Act also include shrinking the federal share of funding for Medicaid.
Planned Parenthood brought hundreds of patients and providers to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby lawmakers on the need to keep their funding and the ACA alive.
Yolen said her group visited with Blumenthal and Murphy, and since her Planned Parenthood office runs clinics in Rhode Island too, they also visited Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.
The senators, all Democrats, need no prodding to back Planned Parenthood. But they could still need some help, Yolen said.
“While they are eager to support us, they need compelling stories to tell, she said.
Among the Planned Parenthood patients lobbying Congress last week was Courtney Everett, a mother of two who at 17 was successfully treated at an affiliated clinic with hormonal birth control for endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside it.
“My two children are the two blessings in my life, and I know for sure that without Planned Parenthood, I would not have this privilege,” she said.
House Republicans had planned to repeal the ACA in March, but that deadline is slipping to April.
The fight over Planned Parenthood funding could also spill over into the spending battle to keep the government open after current funding expires on Apr. 28.
Republicans insist the new budget bill, which would fund the federal government until Sept. 30, not fund Planned Parenthood. That’s a “poison pill” for congressional Democrats, who could block the bill and set up a shutdown showdown
The GOP forced a 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013 in a failed bid to defund the Affordable Care Act. In 2011 and in 2015, Republicans nearly shut down the government over Planned Parenthood.
Gov. Dannel Malloy has proposed legislation to make up any shortfall in Planned Parenthood funding, but it’s not clear how the state would pay for it.
“We are hoping that the state will figure this out for us,” Yolen said.