Texas Women's Health Program Won't Launch as Planned

Oct. 31, 2012: TribLive event with Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek
Oct. 31, 2012: TribLive event with Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek

The Texas Women’s Health Program that excludes clinics like Planned Parenthood that are affiliated with abortion providers will not launch on Thursday as the state planned.

Despite comments Wednesday morning from Texas Health and Human Services Commission Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek indicating the program would be ready to start on Nov. 1, an agency spokeswoman confirmed that the state-led program would not begin until ongoing court controversy over the issue is clarified.

“We're continuing with the Medicaid program until [the federal government] cuts off the funding or we have a final court decision that wouldn't allow us to enforce state law,” Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission, said in an email to The Texas Tribune.

News of the delay came on the heels of a press conference with Gov. Rick Perry and Janek in which the governor reiterated his dedication to stanching the flow of state money to clinics affiliated with abortion providers. He also indicated that the state was ready to move forward with its new program that excludes those clinics.

“Texas will not allow a program that includes abortion providers or their affiliates like Planned Parenthood to be a provider,” Perry said at the Lone Star Circle of Care Clinic in Georgetown. If Planned Parenthood succeeds in its legal challenges to the Texas Women’s Health Program, “they will kill this program, and they will be responsible for denying these important health services to low income women today,” Perry said.

Sarah Wheat, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood in the Texas Capital region, said the Planned Parenthood clinics currently participating in the program would continue to be providers for now.

"Today's announcement is an important victory for every woman who relies on the Women's Health Program for basic, preventive health care," Ken Lambrecht, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said in a press release. "Our doors remain open today and always to every Texas woman in need of affordable, high quality health care."

The Women’s Health Program serves impoverished women who would be eligible for Texas Medicaid if they became pregnant. About 130,000 Texas women are enrolled in the program, which provides cancer screenings and contraception — but not abortions.

The state receives a higher funding match for that program from the federal government — $9 for every $1 spent by the state — than for traditional Medicaid. 

State lawmakers passed a law in 2011 known as the “Affiliate Ban Rule,” which prohibits organizations affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Women’s Health Program.

The federal government said it would stop the federal match for the program if Texas implemented the rule, but Perry pledged to forgo federal funding and implement a version of the program funded only by the state. The program was set to launch Thursday. The program is in a sort of limbo, though, as Texas still receives federal funding for the program, and that will likely continue until Dec. 31.

Despite assurances from Janek and Perry that Texas is prepared to operate the program without federal funds, Donna Howard, D-Austin said in a statement that she was not surprised the "plan to begin implementing the Texas Women's Health Program without federal funds is not ready for prime time." She added, "I'm happy that Planned Parenthood clinics will continue to be reimbursed for the vital care they provide thousands of Texas women, but disappointed that Rick Perry and his appointees continue to use the issue as a political football."

On Thursday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Planned Parenthood’s request to rehear its challenge to the state’s decision to oust the organization and other providers from the Women’s Health Program through the “Affiliate Ban Rule.” In effect, the ruling gave the state permission to proceed with its plan to implement the ban when it launches its own Women's Health Program.

Planned Parenthood immediately filed another lawsuit in state district court arguing that the “Affiliate Ban Rule” was invalid, because a section of state law makes any provision “inoperative” if it causes the state to lose federal funding for the Women’s Health Program. And on Friday, a Travis County district judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring Texas to continue allowing Planned Parenthood to participate in the program.  

In addition to the new provider ban, state lawmakers in 2011 cut two-thirds of family planning funding, reducing the two-year budget from $111 million to $37.9 million for the 2012-13 biennium. As a result, 53 of 240 clinics that received state money to provide family planning services have closed, according to a report by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin. 

Supporters of Planned Parenthood and other clinics that the state is attempting to ban from the program argue that Texas is already strained to provide care for women in the program, and there will not be sufficient providers without those clinics' participation.   

According to the HHSC, there are roughly 3,000 providers certified to participate in the Texas Women's Health Program.

“I don’t have a question that the capacity will be there," Perry said. "I think there will be clinics that will be brought up to speed and open up."

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