By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday seeking to stop enforcement of a new Texas rule that excludes the family planning organization from a program that provides cancer screenings, birth control and other health services to low-income women in the state.
The lawsuit filed by a group of Planned Parenthood clinics that do not provide abortions says the rule is unconstitutional and that it will lead to tens of thousands of women being unable to get preventive healthcare from their chosen provider.
"Worst of all my fears is that these women will forgo life-saving screenings, comprehensive exams, reliable birth control and other vital preventive healthcare services," Patricio Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County in South Texas, told reporters on Wednesday.
Since the Texas Women's Health Program began in 2007, state law has technically banned its money from going to abortion providers or affiliates of abortion providers, but the state did not enforce the ban on affiliates.
In 2011, Texas notified the federal government of its intent to begin enforcing that ban, effectively excluding Planned Parenthood from the program.
Obama administration officials responded by saying they would not renew funding for the program because Texas was violating federal law by restricting freedom of choice of providers. The state is suing over that decision, and Texas Governor Rick Perry has accused the Obama administration of abandoning "these Texas women to advance its political agenda."
State officials say they want to continue the program - which is part of the Medicaid health program for the poor and disabled - and will work to extend federal funding or find a way to pay for it with state dollars. The federal government pays 90 percent of the $33-million-a-year program.
"Federal law gives states the right and responsibility to establish criteria for Medicaid providers so we're on firm legal ground," Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said on Wednesday.
Goodman said "this is not about allowing women to choose their provider." She pointed out that federal officials have waived the freedom of choice provision in all other Medicaid services in Texas.
Starting in May, providers who don't comply with the new rule will be removed from the program, Goodman said.
Gonzales said some of the Planned Parenthood centers would be forced to close.
Rene Resendez, 24, a college student in West Texas who is in the program, said that Planned Parenthood is important to her family because her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Planned Parenthood when she was pregnant.
"Without the Women's Health Program and Planned Parenthood, I don't know what I would do, or where I would go for the cancer screenings and other services that I need," Resendez said.
(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Paul Simao)