Planned Parenthood affiliates file federal suit against Texas over WHP exclusion

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by Mary Tuma No Comments

After banishing Planned Parenthood centers from inclusion in the Women’s Health Program (WHP) because of their status as abortion providers, the state now faces a federal lawsuit from the reproductive health center affiliates in Texas.

Filed in an Austin district court Wednesday morning, the suit challenges the state’s decision as “unconstitutional” under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and argues that women should be allowed to choose their health care provider without state interference. The suit asks for a preliminary injunction to stop the recently signed rule excluding Planned Parenthood from going into effect April 30, and to allow the centers to continue their involvement with WHP.

It also claims that the Health and Human Services Commission’s (HHSC) controversial regulation is in violation of Texas law, as it conflicts with the intention of the statutes that created the program.

As the Texas Independent previously reported, the ban caused Texas to lose its federal funding for the program – amounting to 90 percent of WHP’s budget, or about $35 million­ a year–because the decision puts Texas at odds with federal Medicaid law. While the state rule banning Planned Parenthood from WHP, backed by Gov. Rick Perry, HHSC and Attorney General Greg Abbott, is aimed at ensuring no federal dollars go toward abortion providers, state and national law already prohibit taxpayer money from subsidizing the service. A concurrent lawsuit, filed by Abbott and the state last month, charges the federal government with acting unconstitutionally by cutting funding for the program, which that suit deems an infringement of state’s rights, the Independent reported.

Planned Parenthood centers in Austin, Hidalgo, Lubbock, Cameron Willacy Counties, San Antonio, Central Texas, Gulf Coast, North and West Texas have banded together to fight the new state rule that would effectively leave more than 130,000 low-income women without access to family planning services. Nearly half of WHP recipients use Planned Parenthood for services, making it the single largest provider of reproductive care within the program. The Medicaid-based WHP delivers basic reproductive services like breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, hypertension and STD testing and treatment to some of the state’s neediest women.

Rene Resendez, a 24-year-old West Texas college student and WHP patient, is one of those low-income, uninsured women in danger of losing important services she has relied on for the past five years. After the Odessa Planned Parenthood center in her area closed due to WHP cuts, Resendez is now forced to trek one hour to neighboring Midland for care– to a clinic that has seen reduced hours due to legislative budget cuts that are expected to reduce health care access to another 160,000 mostly low-income women. As the Texas Independent reported, some 2,500 women must now travel elsewhere for basic services after the Odessa branch shuttered in early March. During a Wednesday morning media conference call, Resendez recounted the integral role the family planning center played in testing, detecting and referring treatment of her mother’s cervical cancer and worried aloud if she would be able to access that same care today.

“Without the Women’s Health Program and Planned Parenthood I don’t know what I would do or where I will go for cancer screenings and other services I need,” said Resendez. “Planned Parenthood has been a place my family can trust. I should be able to decide who provides my health care.”

West Texas is not alone in seeing health care choices reduced. Concentrated low-income areas along the Texas-Mexico border, where the need for access is even greater, have also seen clinics close. Feeling the effects already, Patricio Gonzales, lawsuit plaintiff and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County, says the WHP cuts have slashed 50 percent of the area’s budget. In addition to the four Planned Parenthood centers forced to shut down since September due to massive family planning cuts, Gonzales anticipates two to three more Planned Parenthood closures by the end of May directly due to exclusion from WHP. The area he oversees includes some of the poorest women not only in the state, but the country –­90 percent live at or below the federal poverty line, he says.

“Worst of all, my fear is that women will forgo life-saving screenings, comprehensive exams, reliable birth control and other vital preventative health care services,” said Gonzales. “It would have a devastating consequence for their health, including undetected cancers, untreated diseases and unintended pregnancies, which will result in more abortions.”

The “unconstitutional” rule, he continued, “unfairly punishes” tens of thousands of women who rely on the WHP. Planned Parenthood is the largest women’s health provider in the region. Gonzales said no other clinics can adequately absorb the 6,500 patients Planned Parenthood sees in the area. Additionally, many of the women relying on WHP typically must use public transportation and experience longer wait times for care. The center, like Odessa and the eleven other centers forced to close their doors due to funding cuts, does not provide abortions.

Pete Schenkkan of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody, the attorney representing Planned Parenthood in the suit, says Texas can’t deny the centers from funding simply because of the affiliation with abortion, which is administered through legally and financially separate entities. By doing so, the state violates its own rules and defeats the inherent purpose of the health program, he says. Excluding Planned Parenthood violates Planned Parenthood’s constitutional rights, plaintiffs argue, because it imposes an unlawful restriction on their participation in the program. And even if Gov. Perry and state officials do take on closing the funding gap created by the lack of federal dollars, as they’ve intended, the suit’s premise still applies.

“This rule impermissibly penalizes Planned Parenthood, and has the effect of restricting Texans’ access to health care,” said Schenkkan. “We are asking the court to ensure that Planned Parenthood can continue to provide Women’s Health Program services to these women.”

Randall Ellis, senior director of government relations at Legacy Community Health Services in Houston, reminded conference call participants that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country, with one-fourth of women living without health insurance. He said that by removing Planned Parenthood as a provider in the Medicaid program, the health risks of Texas women– especially minorities, women of color and those who reside in rural areas– escalate dramatically.

“We don’t think Governor Rick Perry or HHSC should be telling women of Texas where they receive their health care and when they receive their health care,” said Ellis.

To read a copy of the complaint click here.

(Photo: Flickr/WeNews)

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