U.S. appeals court gives Texas win in Planned Parenthood case that would block funding

A federal appeals court Thursday overturned a ruling that blocked Texas from cutting Planned Parenthood off from Medicaid funding.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the injunction from February 2018. In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin said Texas could not cut off Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funds.

The suit began in December 2016, when Texas state officials notified the organization that it would no longer receive funding from the Texas Medicaid program, a loss of about $3.1 million a year.

In response, Planned Parenthood officials sought a preliminary injunction to fight the loss of funding.

The resulting case centered on secretly recorded videos taken by anti-abortion activists in 2015.

The videos became a source of debate as the activists argued they show Planned Parenthood doctors conspiring to sell fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood staff said the video was highly edited and taken out of context.

The abortion opponents in the video, who were posing as specialists in tissue procurement for research, claimed the research director they spoke to said they could alter abortion procedures for research purposes.

Planned Parenthood staff, however, said the research director in the video was talking about clinical operations, not abortion procedures.

A grand jury cleared the clinic of wrongdoing and instead indicted videographers for the Center for Medical Progress, but those charges were later dismissed.

Sparks said the video featured “unclear and ambiguous dialogue” from a research director who had no personal knowledge of abortion procedures. The director also repeatedly referred specific questions to Planned Parenthood’s abortion doctors.

“A secretly recorded video, fake names, a grand jury indictment, congressional investigations — these are the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning the interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program,” Sparks wrote in the ruling. “Yet, rather than a villain plotting to take over the world, the subject of this case is the State of Texas’s efforts to expel a group of health care providers from a social health care program for families and individuals with limited resources.”

The appeals court sent the case back to Austin this week for a fresh analysis.

The appeals court said in its ruling that Sparks improperly considered evidence presented by Planned Parenthood during the three-day trial.

It also said Sparks should have deferred to the Office of Inspector General, which investigates health and human services programs for fraud and abuse. Prior to Sparks’ ruling, the OIG concluded that Planned Parenthood at a minimum violated federal standards.

Planned Parenthood staff argued that the OIG lacks sufficient expertise to determine the qualifications of abortion providers.

However, the appeals court disagreed.

“OIG is the agency that the state of Texas has empowered to investigate and penalize Medicaid program violations,” the appeals court wrote. “The agency is in the business of saying when providers are qualified and when they are not.”

The appeals court decision puts at risk what Planned Parenthood says are cancer screenings, birth control access and other health services for nearly 11,000 low-income women.

In February, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton blasted Sparks’ ruling, saying the “decision is disappointing and flies in the face of basic human decency.”

Planned Parenthood in Texas

Texas lawmakers have a long-standing feud with Planned Parenthood.

In 2015, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott approved a provision that prevented Planned Parenthood from participating in the joint state-federal Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program, which provides cancer screening for poor, uninsured women in Texas.

In July 2017, the Texas Senate passed a measure that prohibits local and state government agencies from contracting with abortion providers and their affiliates.

State and federal laws already prohibit the use of tax dollars to pay for abortions, but the measure expanded the ban to include any financial contracts — such as lease agreements — with clinics that are affiliated with abortion providers but don’t actually perform abortions.

Staff writer Anna Tinsley contributed to this report.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.