In Planned Parenthood vs. Texas, Judicial Whiplash Ensues

While the Republican-dominated Lone Star state dukes it out with Planned Parenthood, poor patients who rely on the state's Women's Health Program are in limbo

By Akiba Solomon May 02, 2012

On Monday afternoon an Austin-based federal judge told the Texas Health and Human Services department that it couldn’t exclude Planned Parenthood from the state’s Women’s Health Program (WHP). Issuing a temporary injunction, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel–a George W. Bush appointee–wrote that disqualifying Planned Parenthood from the program is a likely infringement on the constitutional rights of WHP users to choose their reproductive health provider.

The victory was short-lived: By about midnight on Monday, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott had filed an appeal and secured an emergency stay from Judge Jerry Smith of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Planned Parenthood opposed the stay yesterday evening; Smith will consider it as he decides on the state’s appeal.

For the time being, it seems that many women won’t be able to use WHP at Planned Parenthood to get their no- or low-cost pap smears, breast exams, birth control, STI screening and treatment, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings and other healthcare. Currently, WHP serves more than 100,000 women who can demonstrate that they are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty limit (translation: a monthly income of $1,723 for a single, childless woman; $2,333 for a household of two; $2,294 for three people; and $3,533 for four). Planned Parenthood serves 40 percent of these clients and is the single largest provider in the state.

This latest skirmish began in mid-April when Texas-based Planned Parenthood affiliates that don’t perform abortions sued the state to stop a law Republicans passed in late February that would make them ineligible for WHP because they share a name with clinics that offer the procedure. The plaintiffs argue that they are legally and financially separate from those that perform abortions (which are still legal, by the way); that WHP patients have a right to choose where they get their healthcare (duh); and that many will not have a viable alternative to Planned Parenthood.

In his 25-page decision, Yeakel seemed to agree, writing, "The record demonstrates that plaintiffs currently provide a critical component of Texas’ family-planning services to low-income women. 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."

Indeed, Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country and 35 percent of women ages 15 to 44 are not covered. Last year, the governor slashed its Medicaid budget by two thirds. And in March, Governor Rick Perry turned down $35 million in federal funds that underwrite WHP because the Obama administration (rightly) refused to let him cut Planned Parenthood from its network of providers on ideological grounds. Since then, the cash-strapped state has been claiming that it will fully fund the WHP using its own dollars.

Advocates aren’t so optimistic: "In an effort to target Planned Parenthood and drive them out of Texas, everybody else has been caught in the net," Fran Hagerty, CEO of the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, told me in a mid-March interview. "They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I have been telling [conservative legislators] for years that if they keep doing what they’re doing, we’re going to end up with no family planning providers except Planned Parenthood because they’re so well-supported and do such a bang-up job of getting national and local support."

While the Planned Parenthood brand is well known and draws lots of supporters, Texas branches that serve poor, rural, mostly Latino areas are suffering acutely. In Hidalgo County, for example, four centers along the Mexican border have shut down since the end of the 82nd Legislative Session last September.

In a tone-deaf statement issued on Monday, Governor Rick Perry’s press secretary said that the state is primarily concerned about the life and liberty of its residents.

"Texas has a long history of protecting life, and we are confident in Attorney General Abbott’s appeal to defend the will of Texans and our state law, which prohibits taxpayer funds from supporting abortion providers and affiliates in the Women’s Health Program. We will continue to work with the Attorney General to pursue all available legal options."

I’d love to see them say that to the WHP enrollees, who often use Planned Parenthood as their sole source of healthcare. As the late, great Whitney Houston famously said, "Show me some receipts."

Stay tuned for periodic updates in this quickly evolving case.