By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge granted Planned Parenthood class action status on Monday for its challenge to Arkansas' ban on Medicaid funding to the health care provider over videos secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group.
The approval by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker strengthens Planned Parenthood's bid to reverse the state's decision in August to halt funding after the videos surfaced in July, claiming to show the nonprofit group's officials negotiating the sale of fetal body parts for profit.
Planned Parenthood has denied the accusation.
Suzanna de Baca, president of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said the group's attorneys would proceed with the paperwork to formalize the class action as soon as possible.
A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she strongly disagreed with Baker's decision and would decide later whether to challenge it.
"It's unfortunate that women who need access to ethical and responsible health care providers are being used by Planned Parenthood in litigation designed to protect Planned Parenthood's bottom line," spokesman Judd Deere said.
In a narrow decision last year, Judge Baker redirected the Arkansas Medicaid program to continue paying Planned Parenthood's local affiliates for three women, identified in court papers as Jane Does, citing probable "irreparable harm" to their reproductive health.
She also indicated in the decision in October that Planned Parenthood as an organization was in a strong position to challenge the cutoff statewide.
Planned Parenthood does not perform surgical abortions in Arkansas, which forbids public funding of abortions except in cases of rape or incest. But it provides other gynecological services as well as birth control and breast examinations.
In its last complete fiscal year, it provided care to about 1,000 Arkansas Medicaid beneficiaries, it said.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Editing by Richard Chang)