LINCOLN, Neb. — A proposal designed to ensure Nebraska abortion providers don’t get federal money opened a sharp divide Monday between organizations that oppose abortion and those that support the right.
Both sides testified on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal at a legislative budget hearing that stretched into the evening.
The measure would prevent health clinics that offer abortions from getting state distributions of so-called Title X funding from the federal government. The Republican governor announced it last month, arguing that Nebraska’s budget should reflect its status as a “pro-life state.”
The Obama administration previously prevented states from withholding federal money from clinics that might provide abortions, but President Donald Trump signed a law last year to reverse that directive and give the states far more leeway in how they distribute so-called Title X funds.
Supporters of the proposal said organizations such as Planned Parenthood could continue to receive such funding only if they maintain “physical, financial and legal separation” between their abortion operations and other services. Clinics are also barred from referring patients to abortion providers or recommending that patients get an abortion, although they could still mention that abortion is one available option.
“These separation requirements are a way to make sure that when this money comes in, we know where it’s going,” said Marion Miner, an advocate for the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha said he was concerned that a clinic’s funding could be in jeopardy if a patient mistakenly assumes that the doctor suggested getting an abortion.
Opponents said the change could hurt the clinics that receive Title X funding and, by extension, thousands of low-income residents who rely on them. A former administrator of the state’s program said the measure was part of an ongoing “witch hunt against birth control and family planning.”
Nebraska residents made 55,000 visits to Title X clinics in 2016 to get tested for sexually transmitted infections, undergo breast exams and receive a variety of other services, said Julie Reno, who managed the Title X program for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services until her retirement in December.
Reno said black, Latino and Native American residents account for a disproportionate share of the state’s Title X patients. The state receives about $2.1 million a year in federal aid to serve those low-income residents, she said.
“When Nebraskans have the tools to plan their futures, they stay off public assistance, obtain resources to care for their children and have the means to give back to their communities,” Reno said.
Last year, Nebraska State Auditor Charlie Janssen issued a report saying that Planned Parenthood of the Heartland misused at least $3,500 in public money for physician fees, staff salaries and pathology work related to abortion. Planned Parenthood denied the allegations, saying the money in question was privately raised but that the expenses were “miscoded” by staff members filling out reports. A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said the audit was politically motivated.
Nebraska health care providers that offer abortions currently receive federal funding that passes through the state Department of Health and Human Services, although the money doesn’t directly pay for abortions. Abortion opponents argue that any federal payments to such clinics frees up other money that’s available for abortions.
Iowa’s Republican-controlled Legislature sought to clamp down on abortion providers last year when it diverted federal family planning money away from organizations such as Planned Parenthood and created its own program the excludes abortion providers. The federal money covered services such as Pap smears and birth control for low-income residents.
The Iowa Department of Human Services has since reported the state saw a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of people enrolled in its family planning program. Iowa also had a reduction in the number of health care providers participating in the program during the new program’s first three months, although state officials cautioned that the data is incomplete.
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