By Will Weissert
GEORGETOWN — Planned Parenthood will continue to receive funds from a joint Texas and federal program providing health care to low-income women, despite the state’s promise to exclude its clinics by Nov. 1 because they are affiliated with abortion providers.
Gov. Rick Perry has pledged to boot Planned Parenthood from the Texas Women’s Health Program after the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011 reinstated a law prohibiting state funds from going to organizations linked to abortion providers. The federal government funds 90 percent of the program, which costs around $40 million annually, but the Obama administration claimed the Texas law violates federal rules — prompting Perry to vow to use only state money to keep the program going.
The governor traveled to a health clinic north of Austin on Wednesday to announce that the state is ready to begin a program with only Texas funds starting today. Health and Human Service Commissioner Kyle Janek said the program will not begin operating immediately and may not take effect until the end of the year since Texas expects federal funding to continue at least until Dec. 31.
Janek said the state has signed up enough health care providers to launch a state-funded program, but acknowledged his agency is still verifying they have the capacity to take on the 50,000 patients currently treated by Planned Parenthood.
Complicating matters are three lawsuits that remain unresolved. A state judge last week temporarily ordered the state to include Planned Parenthood in the program as long as it collects federal funds. The judge scheduled a hearing in that case for Nov. 8.
Janek said he is hopeful the courts will side with the state and allow the exclusion of Planned Parenthood. He said he also hopes the federal government will continue funding the Women’s Health Program, even with the ban on groups linked to abortion providers in place. If the courts decide in the state’s favor, then a new state-funds-only program will be unnecessary.
“The state program is ready to go, but we’re continuing in the federal program until such time that the courts say ‘you either let in Planned Parenthood or other affiliate groups,’ or ‘stop the program entirely,’” Janek said.
Still, even if Texas loses in court, it is assuming the federal government will not halt funding until the end of year, despite its previous assurances that officials would be ready to run the program using only state funds by today. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
That means, no matter what, enrollees in the Texas Women’s Health Program can continue to visit Planned Parenthood clinics and have their care covered by the program — at least for now.
Perry’s office says continuing the program for at least two more months is not a retreat from its earlier promises to immediately defund Planned Parenthood. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed suit in Washington arguing the federal government should have never severed funding to the program over the so-called “affiliate rule.”
Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said Texas did not ask for federal funding to continue through the end of the year “but we’ve also never received an official notice as to when the federal funding would stop.”
Planned Parenthood provides cancer screenings and other services — but not abortions — to about half of the around 130,000 low-income Texas women enrolled in the Women’s Health Program, which is designed for those who might not otherwise qualify for Medicaid.
Addressing reporters and a small crowd that included several women, one with an infant in her lap, at Georgetown’s Lone Star Circle of Care clinic, Perry said “we’ve not only created a program that meets the needs of Texas women, it also respects life.”
“It honors the will of Texas voters and ensures that no taxpayer money goes to abortion providers and or their affiliates,” he said.
But moments later, Planned Parenthood also declared victory, saying in a statement: “Texas officials will continue to operate the Medicaid Women’s Health Program as long as federal funding remains available, even while they claimed they are ‘ready’ to start a new, 100 percent state funded Texas Women’s Health Program.”
Perry accused Planned Parenthood of furthering a “pro-abortion agenda” and demanded that the group drop its legal challenges.
“If they file a lawsuit challenging the Texas program and they were to prevail, they will kill this program,” he said. “They would be responsible for denying these important services to the low-income women of Texas.”