TRENTON - When Gov. Christie slashed spending for women's health services in his first term, legislators and advocates feared that women would lose access to a range of needed health-care services.
The Christie administration now is saying women have greater access to such services in New Jersey than they did before he took office in 2010.
Appearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd said the number of women served by federally qualified health centers has increased 25 percent since 2009, more than offsetting the number of women who lost access to family planning centers because of Christie's budget cuts and vetoes.
Federally qualified health centers offer a variety of services, including reproductive and prenatal care, but not abortions. The centers offer health care to the uninsured and underinsured as well as those with insurance.
Some of the family planning organizations that lost funding as a result of Christie's cuts offered abortion services. Six centers were closed.
"Overall, there are more women being served today than there were in 2009," O'Dowd said.
Christie's expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act also has helped expand access to care, O'Dowd said.
Her testimony came as Christie has tried to allay concerns among the GOP base that he is insufficiently conservative to be the party's presidential nomination in 2016.
Asked about his record in February at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Christie said he was "pro-life" and noted that he had vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood "five times."
Asked by a reporter in New Hampshire on Tuesday whether he considered himself more moderate than other GOP candidates, the governor said he had vetoed tax hikes, cut spending, and "vetoed Planned Parenthood funding."
"Those are all conservative positions," he said.
Previously, Christie had said the state could not afford to fund family planning centers because of budget constraints.
He first struck $7.5 million for family planning from the fiscal year 2011 budget. He has vetoed Democrats' efforts to restore that funding each year since.
State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D., Middlesex) expressed concern about the closing of the six family planning clinics, which also provided primary care.
In 2012, she said, family planning providers served 33,000 fewer women than they did in 2009, a 25 percent drop.
In an interview Wednesday, Greenstein said she was skeptical that the federally qualified centers provide the same services as family planning clinics.
"We don't know that the same women who were going to family clinics just shifted over" to the federally qualified centers, she said. "I just am not convinced of that."
Lynn Brown, president of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey, echoed that sentiment. "We don't know where all 33,000 women have gone," she said Wednesday. "Some have fallen through the cracks of society."
O'Dowd did not dispute those numbers but said women had been able to find care elsewhere. Overall, about 326,600 women were served by federally qualified health centers and family planning centers in 2014, up by nearly 6,200 from 2009, according to the Department of Health.
Brown described federally qualified centers as "expert partners for primary care, and for pediatric care and geriatric care."
"They look to us as the reproductive health-care specialist," she said.
Christie's $33.8 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes $32 million for federally qualified health centers, which are required to provide a higher standard of care than family planning centers, O'Dowd said.
That is down from the $40 million budgeted in June for the current fiscal year but is slightly up from what the administration now anticipates spending this year, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
About 390,000 previously uninsured residents have gained coverage through Medicaid since Christie expanded the government health-care program for the poor in 2014.
An additional 250,000 residents have gained coverage through the federal marketplace created by the health law.
Women who once may have sought reproductive services at family planning centers "now have insurance and can choose where to receive their health-care services," O'Dowd said.
"Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act have had a significant impact on all of our providers," she said.
The law requires health-care providers to offer reproductive services, such as birth control, though there are religious exemptions. Providers can offer abortion but are not required to; federal funds may be used only in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Christie has said expanding Medicaid was the right decision for New Jersey. But in a speech on entitlement reform Tuesday in New Hampshire, Christie declared, "Obamacare does not and cannot work for our country."
In his fiscal 2016 budget, Christie proposes reducing funding for charity care, the state subsidy provided to hospitals for treating the uninsured, by a combined $150 million in state and federal dollars.
The administration says those savings were achieved largely because of Medicaid expansion.