AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas can cut off funding to Planned Parenthood's family planning programs for poor women, a state judge ruled Monday, requiring thousands to find new state-approved doctors for their annual exams, cancer screenings and birth control.
Judge Gary Harger said that Texas may exclude otherwise qualified doctors and clinics from receiving state funding if they advocate for abortion rights.
Texas has long banned the use of state funds for abortion, but had continued to reimburse Planned Parenthood clinics for providing basic health care to poor women through the state's Women's Health Program. The program provides preventive care to 110,000 poor women a year, and Planned Parenthood clinics were treating 48,000 of them.
Planned Parenthood's lawsuit to stop the rule will still go forward, but the judge decided Monday that the ban may go into effect for now. In seeking a temporary restraining order, Planned Parenthood wanted its patients to be able to see their current doctors until a final decision was made.
"We are pleased the court rejected Planned Parenthood's latest attempt to skirt state law," attorney general spokeswoman Lauren Bean said. "The Texas Attorney General's office will continue to defend the Texas Legislature's decision to prohibit abortion providers and their affiliates from receiving taxpayer dollars through the Women's Health Program."
Ken Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said he brought the lawsuit on behalf of poor women who depend on its clinics.
"It is shocking that once again Texas officials are letting politics jeopardize health care access for women," Lambrecht said. "Our doors remain open today and always to Texas women in need. We only wish Texas politicians shared this commitment to Texas women, their health, and their well-being."
Planned Parenthood has brought three lawsuits over Texas' so-called "affiliate rule," claiming it violates the constitutional rights of doctors and patients while also contradicting existing state law.
Republican lawmakers who passed the affiliate rule last year have argued that Texas is an anti-abortion state, and therefore should cut off funds to groups that support abortion rights. Gov. Rick Perry, who vehemently opposes abortion, has pledged to do everything legally possible to shut down Planned Parenthood in Texas and welcomed the court's ruling.
"Today's ruling finally clears the way for thousands of low-income Texas women to access much-needed care, while at the same time respecting the values and laws of our state," Perry said. "I applaud all those who stand ready to help these women live healthy lives without sending taxpayer money to abortion providers and their affiliates."
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has spent the last nine months preparing to implement the affiliate rule. But federal officials warned it violated the Social Security Act and cut off federal funds for the Women's Health Program, prompting the commission to start a new program using only state money.
State officials have also scrambled to sign up new doctors and clinics to replace Planned Parenthood. Women who previously went to Planned Parenthood clinics will now have to use the agency's web site to find a new state-approved doctor. HHSC officials acknowledged Monday they are unsure whether the new doctors can pick up Planned Parenthood's caseload in all parts of the state.
Any capacity issues will become clear in the next few weeks as women try to make appointments with new clinics and doctors, with problems anticipated in South Texas and other impoverished areas. Texas already suffers from a shortage of primary care physicians willing to take on new patients who rely on state-funded health care.
Linda Edwards Gockel, a spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said Monday that the new state program will launch as planned on Tuesday.
"We have more than 3,500 doctors, clinics and other providers in the program and will be able to continue to provide women with family planning services while fully complying with state law," she said. "We welcome Planned Parenthood's help in referring patients to providers in the new program."
Democratic lawmakers continued to question whether women will have to wait longer for appointments and services.
"I vehemently disagree with the state's efforts to blacklist a qualified provider and, thereby, interfere with a woman's right to choose her own provider," said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "I will be submitting a letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, requesting a list of approved providers to gauge the outreach of the new program, and ensure that all qualified women throughout the state have access to its services."
Another hearing is scheduled with a different judge for Jan. 11, where Planned Parenthood will again ask for an injunction to receive state funding.