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Judge temporarily blocks Planned Parenthood's ouster from Texas Medicaid program

Posted February 4, 2021 12:18 a.m. EST

— A Texas county judge has temporarily blocked the state's efforts to remove Planned Parenthood from Medicaid, hours after the group's affiliates alleged that the state failed to provide adequate notice in a regulatory battle affecting thousands of low-income Texans during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A slew of Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates asserted in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission failed to issue "a proper notice of termination" from the program. The state had promised to remove the groups from the Medicaid program Thursday.

The chief press officer for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, Christine Mann, declined to comment on the case citing pending litigation.

The impacts of such a shift could be stark. In 2019, Planned Parenthood provided health care to more than 8,000 Medicaid recipients in the state, according to the most recent figures available from the organization. Additionally, Texas has reported nearly 2.5 million Covid-19 cases and reported over 38,000 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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

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.

A federal judge ruled in 2017 that the state could not withhold Medicaid funding from the provider, saying there was no proof in the video that Planned Parenthood violated ethical or medical standards. The judge also found no state evidence showing that Planned Parenthood altered abortions to procure fetal tissue for research.

But the fight returned to the fore last November when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court order, ruling that "whether a provider is 'qualified' within the meaning of [Medicaid statutes] is a matter to be resolved between the State (or the federal government) and the provider."

In turn, 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 Medicare program citing the court order, barring the affiliates from accepting new Medicaid patients but providing "a 30-day grace period" ending Wednesday to transition patients to new providers.

Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson asserted in a statement Wednesday that "Gov. [Greg] Abbott, emboldened by the Trump legacy, is harming the same people who are struggling the most to survive this pandemic."

"By forcing people -- disproportionately Black and Brown people, essential workers, and single parents -- to go without critical health care, his administration is jeopardizing their futures, safety, and ability to control their own bodies," she added.

CNN has reached out to Abbott's office for comment.

According to 2020 data from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, Texas has the lowest Medicaid income eligibility limits as a percent of the federal poverty level for a parent with two children.

Texas isn't the only state vying to boot Planned Parenthood from Medicaid. In October, the Supreme Court declined to take up an effort by South Carolina Republicans to cut funding to Planned Parenthood by excluding abortion clinics from the state's Medicaid program.

But whether the organization's future as a Medicaid provider will continue to face such challenges remains unclear.

In 2018, the Trump administration issued a letter to state Medicaid directors rescinding an Obama administration directive from April 2016, which warned cuts to family planning providers would violate federal law. Then-President Donald Trump also signed a bill in 2017 allowing states to withhold federal money from organizations that provide abortion services, including Planned Parenthood.

The Biden administration is expected to issue guidance that states cannot bar Medicaid funds from going to qualified health care providers that also perform abortions or provide related services, such as Planned Parenthood. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment, which deferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.

When asked for comment on whether and when such guidance would be issued to states, a Health and Human Services spokesperson said that the agency is "committed to protecting and strengthening the Medicaid program," consistent with an executive order signed by President Joe Biden last week.

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