Judge allows Texas to remove Planned Parenthood from Medicaid program

A Judge allows Texas to remove Planned Parenthood from the Medicaid program. In this image, pro-choice and pro-life activists demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court on January 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. By Caroline Kelly, CNN

(CNN) -- Thousands of Texans are slated to lose their health care provider after a Texas judge on Wednesday allowed the state to remove Planned Parenthood from its Medicaid program.

Texas has long sought to ban Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions in Texas, from Medicaid. Medicaid funding does not cover abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when the woman's life is at risk, due to the Hyde Amendment, dating back to 1976.

Several Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates sued the state last month for moving to ban Planned Parenthood from the program in light of a federal appeals court order in November allowing states to determine whether or not providers are qualified to participate in Medicaid.

The groups asserted that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission failed to issue "a proper notice of termination" from the program. Later that day, a Texas county judge temporarily blocked their ouster from the Medicaid program, with the state had slated for the following day.

But in a ruling on Wednesday, Travis County Civil District Court Judge Lora Livingston wrote that the groups "cite no authority for the proposition that a court injunction requires the (Texas Office of the Inspector General) to re-notice its termination."

"This decision is not made lightly," Livingston continued. "In the light of the ongoing public health crisis, the risks of the individual losing health care and medical attention requires increased attention and scrutiny. The facts underlying the termination in this case give me great pause. However, (the groups) selected the federal courts as the forum to contest the merits of their claims... (which) must be determined by the federal courts."

The impacts of Planned Parenthood's departure from the program could be stark. In 2019, Planned Parenthood provided health care to more than 8,000 Medicaid recipients in Texas, according to the most recent figures available from the organization.

According to 2020 data from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, Texas has the lowest Medicaid income eligibility limits as a percentage of the federal poverty level for a parent with two children. Additionally, Texas has reported more than 2.7 million Covid-19 cases and over 45,000 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

In a statement Wednesday, Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson accused Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, of continuing "to put his politics before the people he was elected to serve."

"As Texans grapple with the compounding crises of the pandemic and impacts of the deadly winter storm, thousands of people who rely on Medicaid will now face another obstacle built by Gov. Abbott: finding a new provider in a state which a provider shortage," she said. "It didn't have to be this way for Texans."

CNN has reached out to Abbott for comment. Christine Mann, the chief press officer for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation.

Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, director of state media campaigns at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the organization was "exploring all of our options" in regard to next moves in the fight to remain in the program.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission informed Planned Parenthood affiliates in 2015 that it was cutting off the organization from the state's Medicaid program, citing then-recently released undercover videos from an anti-abortion activist group as evidence of violations. But a federal judge ruled in 2017 that the state could not withhold Medicaid funding from the provider, saying there was no proof in the videos from an anti-abortion activist group that Planned Parenthood had violated ethical or medical standards.

After the appeals court's finding last year, Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates asked the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in December if they could remain in the Medicaid program during the worst of the pandemic, and if not, for "a six-month grace period to allow our patients to take care of urgent health needs during this crisis stage of this pandemic, and to allow us to help our patients attempt to find new providers willing to accept new patients insured through Medicaid."

In a January 4 letter, the state commission denied their request to remain in the Medicaid program, citing the court order. The commission barred the affiliates from accepting new Medicaid patients but provided "a 30-day grace period" to transition patients to new providers ending in February, the day after the Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates sued.

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