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Women’s Public Health and Safety Act could further restrict abortion access

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Planned Parenthood in Chapel Hill provides reproductive health services to the Triangle. The Women's Public Health and Safety Act, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) — could impact the organization's funding. 

The Women’s Public Health and Safety Act was introduced to the U.S. Senate in mid-February — less than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill could give states the ability to exclude abortion providers from receiving state Medicaid funds unless an abortion is deemed necessary due to rape, incest or a life-threatening situation. 

It will negate current federal law, which requires states to allow any legitimate medical provider to participate in a state’s Medicaid program. 

On Feb. 28, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) announced in a press release that he is co-sponsoring the bill. U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) is the primary sponsor of the bill.

“Abortion is not health care,” Lankford said in a press release from co-sponsor U.S. Sen. James Risch (R-ID). “It should not be controversial to say that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to support abortion providers. States should have the right to decide that Medicaid funds will not support an abortion provider’s bottom line."

Tillis' press release said Planned Parenthood received nearly $1.3 billion in Medicaid reimbursements over a three-year period. This accounts for 81 percent of the reproductive health care provider’s joint federal-state funding stream, according to the release. The release said the data came from a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. 

“Organizations like Planned Parenthood should not be receiving taxpayer dollars to perform abortions,” Tillis said in the statement. “This legislation will give authority back to the states to choose where Medicaid dollars should go, and I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation to protect life.”

Jillian Riley, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said the bill is an attack on sexual and reproductive health care.

Riley explained that the act would stop people from receiving services such as contraceptives, breast cancer screenings, STI testing and treatments and more. 

"(Planned Parenthood) make(s) reproductive services including family planning services and (STI) testing available for low-income women and for others with the capacity for pregnancy in rural areas and in areas where the services are often not available," Maxine Eichner, a law professor at UNC, said. 

Medicaid is the largest funder of reproductive health care in the United States. 

People of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people who live in rural areas, people with disabilities and women are more likely to be insured by Medicaid due to systemic discrimination and barriers to economic advancement, according to Riley.

“Our patients cannot afford to lose access to these critical services and should never be used as a political pawn by elected officials,” she said in an email. 

Tara Romano, the executive director of Pro-Choice North Carolina, said the bill is a way of stigmatizing and politicizing health care. 

Romano said that legislation to block abortion access has been in place for a long time, specifically on the financial side.

“Anti-abortion lawmakers have known that by blocking people's access to pay for abortion care, that's a way of blocking access to abortion,” Romano said. 

Eichner said she teaches family law and has a research interest in reproductive rights and women's equality.

While Eichner said she believes this federal bill will have no chance of passing right now, she said there are more significant threats to women’s reproductive rights that are currently occurring in the state legislature.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) told the Associated Press that the state has an absolute interest in regulating abortion after the first trimester. 

State law currently has a ban in place after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in cases of medical emergency, rape or incest. 

North Carolina is one of 11 states that have not yet adopted the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, a provision that increases insurance coverage for low-income adults. A report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said the expansion would directly improve the health and well-being of 600,000 North Carolina residents. 

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The N.C. General Assembly reached an agreement to expand Medicaid earlier this month and the bill will be in full effect once the state budget is approved.  

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