Women's Health
2:18 pm
Mon April 30, 2012

Judge: HHSC Must Keep Planned Parenthood in WHP For Now

A district judge in Austin has ordered Texas to temporarily stop its enforcement of a rule that would have removed 49 Planned Parenthood clinics from the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program starting May 1.

In a 25-page opinion, United States District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that the Planned Parenthood organizations that filed the lawsuit proved there could be irreparable harm to their clinics that rely on Women’s Health Program funding to help uninsured Texans access cervical and breast cancer screenings, birth control and STD testing. Yeakel also expressed doubt that the state could find enough providers by Tuesday to replace the Planned Parenthood clinics with other health providers.

“The record demonstrates that plaintiffs currently provide a critical component of Texas' family-planning services to low-income women," Yeakel wrote. "The court is unconvinced that Texas will be able to find substitute providers for these women in the immediate future, despite its stated intention to do so." 

Officials with Texas' Health and Human Services Commission and with Gov. Rick Perry's office could not immediately be reached for comment. But it's unclear how far-reaching the ruling is. Texas officials have stated their intention to run the program without federal help — and without Medicaid dollars. This could largely make Yeakel's opinion moot. 

The clinics alleged that the Health and Human Services Commission’s rules infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech and to associate with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, an organization that supports access to “safe and legal” abortion services. In Texas, none of the 49 clinics that received WHP funding performed abortions, but they referred women seeking the procedure to clinics that do.

Yeakel ruled that the commission’s rules requiring all Women’s Health Program providers to certify that they “do not promote ‘elective abortions’ and that they do not ‘affiliate’ with entities that perform or promote elective abortions” indicates that “Texas is reaching beyond the scope of the government program and penalizing plaintiffs for their protected conduct.”

Though Yeakel ruled in Planned Parenthood’s favor, he made clear this is a preliminary ruling that preserves the “status quo … until a thorough airing of the issues by trial occurs. The court observes that if the federal funds are phased out, Texas does not provide another source of funds, and the Women's Health Program terminates, the controversy now before the court may be of no consequence.”

The court rejected the state’s argument that providing Planned Parenthood with government funds “for non abortion-related activities effectively ‘frees up’ organizational funds for use on abortion-related services." Yeakel also wrote that Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs did not sufficiently prove that funding had been mismanaged or that the state can “condition participation” in the program. 

In their initial request for the injunction, the Planned Parenthood clinics argued they stood to lose about $13.5 million in annual funding for preventive health and family planning services. The loss of funding on May 1 would have probably led to clinic closures statewide and the immediate layoffs of employees — directly affecting about half the clients in the Women’s Health Program, most of whom are uninsured and have gone to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, birth control and STD testing.