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Women’s Health Program At Risk Again

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UPDATE, Aug. 29: The Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s definition of abortion “affiliate” was published Friday afternoon in the Texas Register (link here). Planned Parenthood’s lawyers are analyzing what effect it will have and whether their family planning health centers will be kept off the program.

Texas social conservatives have long had Planned Parenthood in their crosshairs. During the past legislative session, many Republican lawmakers sought to drastically reduce the Women’s Health Program, which provides basic reproductive care, contraception and cancer screenings to low-income women across the state—all because Planned Parenthood is one of the primary groups the Women’s Health Program funds. At the time, a last-minute budget rider salvaged both the program and Planned Parenthood’s role.

But things are hardly in the clear for Planned Parenthood—and by extension, the Women’s Health Program. Currently the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is drafting a new rule that may ban health centers affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Women’s Health Program. Specifically, the rule would likely target Planned Parenthood, and prevent the group from contracting with the state. The rule change may not only lessen the impact of the Women’s Health Program; it could also risk losing federal approval and federal funding.

The Commission is defining abortion “affiliate,” a move that women’s health advocates expect will push Planned Parenthood’s health centers off the program even though the family planning health centers are financially separate nonprofits from those that also provide abortions.

The new rule will severely damage the already under-utilized Women’s Health Program. According to recent state data, 88,491 women received services in 2009, which is just 10 percent of the eligible population.

Currently, Planned Parenthood serves about 40 percent of all the women who rely on the program, said Sarah Wheat, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region. If the organization is kept off the program, Wheat says, women will undoubtedly lose access to their basic healthcare needs.

“With all the challenges we’re all facing with the budget and economy, it just seems like a stunningly misdirected effort because the only outcome from this is a potential political victory,” Wheat said. “It’s a loss for women’s health, Texas taxpayers and Texans who want policymakers to make good decisions.”

HHSC is scheduled to publish a draft of its new rule today in the Texas Register, where it will remain for 30 days and open for public comment before it is finalized. Wheat says Planned Parenthood will challenge the new rule in court if it is kept off the list of providers.

“We’ve got attorneys already tracking this incredibly closely,” she said. “We’re ready to take whatever steps are needed to make sure that Texas women can count on Planned Parenthood, or whatever health clinic it is, to receive” their healthcare services.

The likely rule change may also risk the program’s federal funding. Because the program is funded through Medicaid, the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services must approve it. Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for HHSC, said in an email the agency is drafting a proposal to the feds.

There’s no telling whether the federal government will approve the program if it keeps out a large provider like Planned Parenthood. Goodman said the agency will likely submit a renewal application before the new rule is finalized but will “notify (the federal government) of the change in rule once that language has been finalized.”

“The feds can approve it, or they can say no,” Wheat said. That’s “a whole other big, very important question.”

So while the program may have been renewed during the session, conservative lawmakers and pro-life groups may still get their way and succeed in sticking it to Planned Parenthood. But Planned Parenthood won’t be the ones who suffer. Low-income women will.