Senate Zika Bill Falls Apart Largely Over Planned Parenthood Objections

PHOTO: A lab technician displays an Aedes aegypti mosquito in a test tube in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Feb. 19, 2016. PlayDado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WATCH Senate Zika Bill Falls Apart Largely Over Planned Parenthood Objections

A billion-dollar bill to help address the Zika virus crisis fell apart on the Senate floor today over perennial partisan squabbles — namely, about whether to devote funding to the family planning organization Planned Parenthood.

Democrats blamed Republicans for using the bill to “whack” the organization, while Republicans said the bill included plenty of funding, allocated in the most effective way, to target those most affected by the Zika virus, including those seeking contraceptive services.

Both statements are disputed by the opposing side, but the fact is that the bill failed to receive the 60 votes necessary to advance, largely over disagreements about a portion of the money that amounted to less than 9 percent of its funding.

The Zika bill also contained provisions related to the environment and the display of Confederate flags that Democrats find objectionable. In addition to the policy specifics, Democrats object to the fact that the House Republicans revised and passed the conference report in a party-line vote in the dead of night last week amid the protests of Democrats who were staging an unrelated sit-in on the floor of the House on gun safety measures.

But no provision got more public pushback from Democrats than the lack of direct funding to Planned Parenthood.

Just before the 52-48 vote on the Zika bill, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer assailed his Republican colleagues for blocking funding to the organization.

“Republicans can’t miss a chance to whack Planned Parenthood, even if their services are exactly what can help prevent the spread of this debilitating virus,” said Schumer, who will likely be the next Senate Democratic leader come January.

The White House threatened on Monday to veto the bill, citing its inadequate funding overall and claiming it would block access to contraception.

“The bill includes an ideological rider blocking access to contraception for women in the United States, including women in Puerto Rico, even though this is a sexually transmitted disease,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said.

The bill wouldn’t have directly provided funds for private family planning organizations, but Republican Senate aides noted that it would have contained $95 million for public health departments, hospitals and public health plan reimbursement through the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) program.

Republicans said funding through the SSBG would have allowed each state or territory the maximum flexibility to direct money wherever it is most needed. In the U.S., the virus is expected to have the biggest impact in Puerto Rico, and $40 million of the funding would have gone to 20 community health centers there.

They added that the SSBG funding would have been available to Preven, a network of 13 federally funded family-planning clinics in Puerto Rico that provide contraception and other services, and that Planned Parenthood providers and patients could still hve gotten Medicaid reimbursements for Zika care.

“If Planned Parenthood wants to accept your Medicaid, you can absolutely get a reimbursement through them,” a Senate Republican aide said. Democrats and Planned Parenthood argued that using the SSBG program to fund Zika efforts in this bill, which was the product of a reconciling, or conference, between House and Senate versions, would not have been the most effective way to target funds.

A Senate Democratic aide said the initial Senate version of the bill, which had bipartisan support, contained a more workable proposal: funding health care services through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant program, which the aide said more directly assists women and babies, the most critical populations to reach in the Zika crisis.

“You would think that in response to a virus that primarily impacts women’s health that has a lot to do with pregnancy and contraception is uniquely equipped to prevent, then you’d want to invest in organizations that are really good at providing that kind of care,” the aide added.

According to the aide, the bill would have made access to contraceptives more difficult for women, especially in Puerto Rico, because the Senate bill would have structured its SSBG funds to exclude private health care agencies like Planned Parenthood. “Eligible providers could only be public health departments, hospitals and entities reimbursed by public health plans. This would make access to contraceptive and prenatal services more difficult, especially for women in Puerto Rico,” the aide said.

In response to that criticism, Stephen Worley, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Republicans, said, “Democrats should be more concerned with the outcome than whether or not their preferred programs are funded.”

While the bill would not cut or block existing funding to Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, Democrats objected to the bill’s lack of additional funding specifically for those groups at a time when additional funding for them is so urgently needed, which they argue amounts to a cut.

“Obviously there’s no rule in this legislation that says you can’t get care for Zika as an individual if you go into a clinic. But there’s no supplemental funding to address the additional need that goes to providers who are uniquely equipped to support this kind of response,” the aide said.

Planned Parenthood slammed the bill in a statement, saying it “exclude[d] the International Planned Parenthood Federation Puerto Rican member association, Profamilias, from the Zika response.” Profamilia appears to have seven facilities around the island.

After the bill failed this morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would address the issue again sometime after the Fourth of July weekend. But time is running out, with only two weeks of the legislative session left before senators leave for the rest of the summer.