Standing Alone for Women's Health Care in Virginia

Virginia Delegate Kaye Kory on what it's like to support women's rights when no one else will.

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Margaret Sanger's refrain that "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body" apparently did not resonate with Virginia legislators earlier this year. The state passed a budget that eliminated $6 million of funding for long-acting, reversible contraceptive coverage for low-income women. The funding had been proposed for the second consecutive year by Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is a vocal supporter of women's reproductive rights. But with a Republican-controlled legislature, support for women's health care in Virginia is an uphill battle, and Governor McAuliffe's proposal was shot down for the second year in a row.

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Beyond McAuliffe, there aren't many other Democrats screaming from the legislative rooftops to help women. Delegate Kaye Kory of Fairfax's 38th District was the only one to cast a "nay" vote on the budget, saying she could not join her colleagues in supporting a measure that would leave many women behind. Kory's fight to protect women's right to health care is nothing new: She has long worked to eliminate onerous regulations on abortion providers and espoused affordable, accessible birth control for all women. She has been a vocal opponent of recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and has supported issues that impact the most disenfranchised women in the country, including equal pay and immigrants' rights.

I caught up with Delegate Kory after the vote to discuss her lone-wolf holdout status, her state's failure to adopt the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and more.

Amy Lyons: What are the possible ramifications of Virginia's budget cuts on women's health care?

Kaye Kory: When you take away the opportunity for a woman who lives in poverty to exercise her judgment about birth control, you force women and children to live in disadvantaged situations. Then they need more help from the state.

AL: You also disagreed with a measure in the budget that funds the implementation of fraud-detection systems regarding food-stamp distribution. Why?

KK: I disagree with spending money to create new ways of preventing the misuse of state assistance funds like food stamps because basically there isn't any misuse. It's like voter fraud — it's a myth. We spend about $3 million to invent these fraud-detection programs. What they mainly do is ensure that anyone who has won the lottery will not be allowed food stamps. This expansion just creates a more punitive system of denying food-stamp cards to people who need them.

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There's also this idea that recipients sell their food-stamp cards, but that's not really a problem because the card has your name on it and the cardholder has a unique number that is recorded in the state's computer systems. When I ask about the number of reported food-stamp imposters, I can't get an answer.

AL: So the people in favor of these fraud-detection systems are reacting to statistics that don't really exist?

KK: Yes.

If you're still not going to have enough money for hospitals and schools and roads and health care, you have to say "Enough is enough."

AL: What is it like to be the only person to object to the budget?

KK: In discussing the budget with the Democrats, there were good reasons to vote for it. I just couldn't go there. It's nice that in a paltry budget that underfunds everything, there is now more money for mental-health training for people in jails, for example. But if you're still not going to have enough money for hospitals and schools and roads and food stamps and health care, you have to say "Enough is enough."

AL: Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion provided new coverage for millions of low-income adults and children, but Virginia is one of the few states not to adopt the Medicaid expansion. You must go crazy every time this comes up.

KK: Right, because it's federal money that you and I — Virginians — have already paid, so it's not an extra cost on anybody; it's set aside for 100 percent reimbursement for the Medicaid expansion until the ACA is overturned. Almost every state has adopted the expansion: West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi — all the states we normally say, "Oh, thank God for them, because we don't rank below them in anything." I mean, even Mike Pence did it.

There are roughly 400,000 uninsured working Virginians, and I'm sure most of them vote, and they probably don't know that their legislature is busy voting against them having health care.

AL: You also have a long history as an education activist, including your ten years of service on the Fairfax County School Board. Can you discuss the appointment of Betsy DeVos?

KK: I am very worried about her because there are a number of measures in the new No Child Left Behind Act that I'm pretty sure she's going to get rid of. We knew there were a lot of problems with No Child Left Behind, but it brought real attention to the students whose low test scores are masked when you look at averages. All you need is a certain percentage of relatively wealthy students who come from homes where they have lots of books and people speak in multisyllabic English words — those kids are going to test well. When you have an average, you don't know how many students are not doing well.

In Virginia, charter schools are actually a good opportunity. But when you get into independent, privately funded charter schools that are taking money from public schools, then you're divorcing a person's ability from their opportunity to influence where their tax money goes. There's a huge partisan belief in the value of charter schools, and I think it's extremely misplaced. I think the students that, in theory, are being helped hugely by charter schools could be helped hugely by having that kind of attention in the public schools.

AL: On transportation and safety, you cosponsored a bill earlier this year to increase fines to slow drivers in the fast lane. You were surprised the bill got widespread media coverage. Can you talk about that?

KK: Well, of course it is dangerous to drive too slow in the fast lane and it impacts people's daily lives, but it's just funny that during the most anti-woman, anti-immigrant session that I have ever been a part of, and with all the things I've been jumping up and down about, like birth control and health insurance, this left-lane thing got all the attention.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Amy Lyons's writing has appeared in LA Weekly,Backstage, ThinkProgress, and more. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bennington College.

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