Judge rules against Texas in women's care dispute

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Associated Press

Posted on December 22, 2012 at 1:32 PM

WACO, Texas (AP) — Texas' request to force the U.S. Health and Human Services to continue funding its Women's Health Program was denied Friday, as a judge sided with federal authorities who say the state's exclusion of Planned Parenthood violates HHS guidelines.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith's ruling won't affect the state's decision to move forward next year with an entirely state-funded program, even though the state was also seeking to keep its federal funding, said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. But Planned Parenthood, which serves more than 40 percent of the low-income women in Texas' program, questioned whether the state's efforts would be effective without federal funding or its clinics.

State lawmakers have banned any clinic affiliated with abortion providers from taking part in the Women's Health Program, which covers cancer screenings and other services for an estimated 130,000 low-income women. In response, federal authorities announced they would cut off funding, which pays for 90 percent of the family-planning costs and half of the administrative costs.

Smith denied a state request for a preliminary injunction to force U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to keep the funding in place. Without an injunction, federal funding is expected to expire on Dec. 31.

Texas officials say they have created an entirely state-funded program, which, starting Jan. 1, will provide the same services but exclude Planned Parenthood, Goodman said. The program is estimated to cost $40 million a year.

Goodman said the commission had found "pockets of money" in its budget to fund the Women's Health Program through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in August. The Legislature will have to pass funding to continue the program from September on, she said.

To help fund the program, Goodman said officials are reducing overtime costs and trying to improve efforts to recover Medicaid funds lost to fraud or wasteful spending.

Jonathan Mitchell from the Texas Attorney General's office argued Friday that Sebelius' move to cut funding was an "abuse of discretion." Texas had authority under the program to set guidelines for providers that the state felt were appropriate, he said.

But Joseph Mead, an attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice, said federal law gave Sebelius discretion to approve or deny state funding requests. Medicaid rules also guaranteed patients the chance to choose their provider, Mead said.

"The state wants to have its cake and eat it too," Mead said.

Smith did not detail why he declined to grant an injunction.

Goodman said the state has signed up more than 1,000 new providers to replace Planned Parenthood, and that its surveys indicated there were enough providers for major metropolitan areas. Officials are still evaluating some smaller and rural areas, she said.

But Planned Parenthood and its supporters question whether participants in the state-funded program will have access to care if the reproductive care provider is excluded. It has sued in state court to be included in the new program.

"There is no sound reason Texas should jeopardize this important program by cutting off access to the health care provider relied on by nearly half of the women receiving basic, preventive health care through the program," Ken S. Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said in a statement Friday. "Our top priority is ensuring women in Texas have access to high quality, affordable health care. We wish Texas politicians shared this commitment to Texas women, their health, and their wellbeing."

Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General, said the state was evaluating its options.

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