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Governor signs bills in Suffolk

The focus was on reproductive healthcare outside the Health and Human Services building in downtown Suffolk as Gov. Ralph Northam signed several bills into law during a June 17 ceremony.

Authors of the legislation were also on hand, as Northam signed a bill from Del. Haya Ayala, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, that establishes a workgroup to create the state’s first fetal and infant mortality review team.

He also signed bills from Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Sally Hudson to end the ban on abortion coverage plans offered through the health exchange — the first state in the country to do so — and Northam signed Sen. Jennifer Boysko’s bill allowing Medicaid recipients to get a 12-month supply of birth control.

McClellan said it was a historic day for women’s reproductive rights in the state. She shared stories of women having to make difficult decisions and previous laws that put barriers between them and the care they needed. She said the legislation authored by herself and Hudson takes another step toward rolling back those barriers.

“The practical impact that our laws have on the doctor-patient relationship and on decisions that should be between patients, doctors, and their families, and nobody else,” McClellan said.

She said legal and financial barriers are still barriers, and if someone doesn’t have insurance, treatment is still out of reach for too many women.

Del. Haya Ayala, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said as a woman of color, she faced severe complications when giving birth to her son, and both of them almost died several times during the process — before, during and after birth.

“Too often these outcomes are just not nearly as positive for women, especially for women of color in the Commonwealth,” Ayala said.

Northam said he came to Suffolk to highlight the work of its health department, and that of others around the state. He said the bills he signed are “a critical step to protecting women.”

“This is something we’ve been working on for many, many years,” Northam said in an interview following the ceremony. “And to make sure that women have access to quality, reproductive healthcare. It’s an exciting day for Virginia. We wanted to be here in Suffolk to be back at home and also to thank folks here for all the great work that they’ve done over the years.”

Speaking ahead of the bill signings, Northam said they are important steps for women and for families.

“Today’s legislation will ensure that access to abortion is an essential part of health coverage,” Northam said, “by providing that insurance plans through the health benefits exchange can cover abortion services.”

He said this will ensure that the state’s women will have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare.

He said it builds off of legislation passed in 2020 and sponsored in the state Senate by McClellan, that repealed the state’s mandatory ultrasound law and 24-hour waiting period before an abortion.

As host, Del. Clinton Jenkins was also on hand, and said the event was important to raise the profile of the city.

“The governor represents the entire state of Virginia,” Jenkins said, “and the fact that he chose to support Suffolk and then show Suffolkians that he’s supporting us (through) legislation and financially — the budget. I think it’s a great thing. He just wants Suffolk to know that we’re included in the state of Virginia, and letting us know that he’s supporting us.”

Besides Northam and state legislators, city officials including City Manager Al Moor, Interim  Police Chief Al Chandler, Mayor Mike Duman and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, as well as council members Donald Goldberg and LeOtis Williams, were also in attendance.
NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Director Tarina Greene, and several women affiliated with the organization, also attended the event.

McClellan, like Northam and other speakers, highlighted the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act earlier in the day, and noted the state “is on the verge of implementing a state health care exchange.”

Her bill, McClellan said, is about making sure politicians and their personal beliefs do not play a part in decisions made by women, their families and their doctors.

“We’ve got more work to do,” McClellan said as a freight train roared and whistled on the tracks across the street. “We’re going to keep doing that work.”