By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Wednesday defended naming a former vice president at Planned Parenthood as a top deputy, saying she won’t have any involvement in lawsuits challenging the state’s abortion laws.
Secretary-designee Andrea Palm was asked about the pick of Nicole Safar during a confirmation hearing before the state Senate’s health committee. Palm has drawn heat from anti-abortion groups and conservative Republican senators for selecting Safar, a longtime Planned Parenthood lobbyist, to be her assistant deputy secretary.
“Nicole Safar was absolutely my first choice and … I am glad she accepted my offer to come on board at DHS,” Palm told the senators. “She does not, however, have any sort of legal role at the department.”
Committee member Republican Sen. Andre Jacque told Palm he was concerned that Safar could “undermine the state’s defense” in a lawsuit filed last month by Planned Parenthood seeking repeal of laws making it more difficult for women to get abortions.
Planned Parenthood wants to repeal laws requiring that only doctors perform abortions; women seeking medicine that causes abortions see the same doctor on two separate visits; and doctors be physically present when dispensing abortion-causing drugs.
Safar, an attorney, supervised Planned Parenthood’s legal team and oversaw two lawsuits challenging state laws limiting access to abortions, according to her online biography on the Department of Health Services website.
Jacque and fellow Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel also raised concerns about Evers proposing to make Planned Parenthood eligible for federal funds and a women’s health block grant. Former Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature blocked Planned Parenthood from getting the money.
“Wisconsin residents deserve a Department of Health Services focused on delivery quality services to our residents, not one waging an ideological battle on behalf of left-wing special interest groups like Planned Parenthood,” Stroebel said in a statement.
Evers is proposing allocating about $387,000 to the women’s health block grant, which gives money to public health departments and private organizations that offer cancer screenings, STI prevention, testing and treatment, as well as prenatal counseling.
Palm, when asked by Jacque if she had recommended funding for Planned Parenthood, said the broader issue is about addressing gaps in coverage for women’s health and making sure they are treated holistically.
“We’ve all been concerned about women falling through the cracks,” she said.
No senator has said they will vote against confirming Palm to lead the agency that has a $12 billion annual budget and oversees Wisconsin’s Badger Care Plus Medicaid program, SeniorCare and a host of other public benefits programs.
“Obviously I have concerns,” Jacque said after the hearing. He would not say how he intends to vote.
Wisconsin Right to Life executive director Heather Weininger urged the committee to reject Palm’s appointment, citing concerns over her hiring Safar and the possibility of Planned Parenthood receiving taxpayer funding.
Health committee chairman Sen. Patrick Testin, a Republican from Stevens Point, said after the hearing that he saw no reason why Palm wouldn’t be confirmed. The committee will vote later on whether to recommend her confirmation to the full Senate, which Republicans control 19-14.