Ayotte’s supporters, critics have different views on votes

  • U.S. Senate Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte, left speaks as Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan listens during a live televised debate Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, Pool) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Friday, November 04, 2016

Kelly Ayotte has made women’s health care a central piece of her re-election campaign, touting efforts in Washington to make contraception and mammograms more accessible.

But Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan and her allies accuse Ayotte of distorting her record, saying the Republican’s votes would have actually denied women affordable care.

Has Ayotte “pink washed” her record, as Planned Parenthood claims?

Ayotte, 48, is anti-abortion and campaigned on the issue during her 2010 Senate run. She said then during a debate that Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, should be overturned. 

This election cycle, Ayotte has rarely brought up the abortion issue. Her campaign instead made national headlines for handing out free condoms to students at a college campus. “Use condom sense!” said a sign advertising the giveaway last month, meant to highlight a bill Ayotte sponsored last year to make contraception available over-the-counter.

“To me that’s very, very important for women to have that access for their health and their future,” Ayotte said in a web ad. 

In the U.S. Senate, Ayotte has voted to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a national reproductive health care organization that runs five clinics across New Hampshire. 

The measures haven’t passed. But Ayotte said her vote would not have led to a drop in patient care because she supports redirecting the federal funds to local community health centers, which she said could provide the same contraceptives and services. 

There are about a dozen such health centers in New Hampshire that saw roughly 110,000 patients in 2014 and offer a range of services, from primary and preventative care to dental exams. 

It’s hard to tell whether the plan would actually work. Some independent health officials say the community health centers aren’t equipped to take on those patients, which could lead to a drop in access. 

“On paper it sounds like a great plan,” said Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the Equality Health Center in Concord, which would be unaffected by the plan. “The community health centers are underfunded as it is, and to then ask them to take on the broad depth of services that Planned Parenthood takes on for very little money, in all honesty, they just couldn't do it.”

In the U.S. Senate

Democrats in New Hampshire have frequently used the “war on women” attack line against Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown, who was forced to defend his record on women’s reproductive health in the final weeks of the 2014 campaign.

Ayotte fought the attacks by highlighting bills she filed in the Senate that she says would improve women’s health.

The condom hand-out was meant to spotlight a proposal Ayotte co-sponsored in 2015 known as the Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act. It would have provided incentives for birth control manufacturers to make their products available over-the-counter. 

But critics argue the plan would actually reduce access to contraception by undermining federal requirements that insurance companies cover birth control. Opponents, including Democrats and pro-abortion rights groups, say the bill would force women to pay out-of-pocket for the birth control. Ayotte disputes the assertions. 

Access to birth control has come up in other votes. Ayotte in 2012 supported the so-called “Blunt Amendment,” a Republican-led proposal to let employers opt-out of federal healthcare requirements, including contraception coverage, they found morally objectionable. It was narrowly killed. 

In television ads, Ayotte highlights a bipartisan measure on mammogram access she backed that was signed into law as part a government funding bill last year. It temporarily suspends a federal panel’s new recommendations that women over age 50 get the cancer screenings once every two years, instead of annually. The guidance is often used by insurance companies to set coverage policies.

“I have reached across the aisle to protect access for mammograms,” Ayotte said in one ad. 

But Democrats say Ayotte’s votes in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act undermine such efforts. The ACA, known as Obamacare, required private insurance plans cover mammograms with no cost sharing, an increased benefit from before, according to Factcheck.org.

Community health centers 

The plan to redirect federal money from Planned Parenthood to community health centers has come up twice in Ayotte’s first term. She backed both proposals. One effort came in 2015, on the heels of a Republican effort to defund Planned Parenthood after anti-abortion activists released videos purporting to show organization officials talking about the sale of fetal tissue. 

At the time, Ayotte said in a statement: “I do not support the use of taxpayer dollars to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and harvests babies’ body parts, which is why I voted to redirect funding to community health centers that provide women’s health services such as cancer screenings, mammograms, and contraceptives.”

Planned Parenthood disputes that community health centers could pick up their coverage. The organization’s five New Hampshire clinics served roughly 11,000 patients last year. 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund has endorsed Hassan in the U.S. Senate race, and paid for television ads attacking Ayotte. Federal funds make up roughly one-third of the Planned Parenthood’s New England budget. 

Bi-State Primary Care Association, part of the community health center network in New Hampshire, declined to comment on the story.