Official: Abortion rights not behind voided pact
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An attorney for Planned Parenthood who asked a federal judge Thursday to block the state from cutting the agency from a nutritional program argues that the organization's support of abortion rights played a role in the decision, but Oklahoma's health commissioner says that was not the case.
Attorney Carrie Flaxman asked U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot to grant Planned Parenthood's request for an injunction against Commissioner of Health Terry Cline. The organization sued Cline last month claiming it was denied a contract for the federal Women, Infants and Children — or WIC — program at its three Tulsa-area clinics for legally impermissible reasons.
Flaxman made the request after Health Department officials testified that research conducted before the decision was made indicated Planned Parenthood provides referrals for abortions and is affiliated with abortion providers in other states.
"I believe the timing is rather suspicious," Flaxman said.
But Cline and other administrators said abortion rights had nothing to do with the decision and that Planned Parenthood's contract was not renewed because of a variety of long-term managerial and administrative problems, including declining caseloads, increasing client costs and the failure to resolve budgetary questions.
"Absolutely not," Cline responded when Assistant Attorney General Kindy Jones asked whether the organization's abortion-related activities should play a role in the decision. Cline added: "It's irrelevant to the issue at hand."
He said he was not pressured by politicians or members of the Board of Health to not renew Planned Parenthood's contract. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered unsuccessful legislation that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
"I received no pressure from any source," Cline testified.
Friot did not immediately hand down a ruling and said he wants time to study evidence and exhibits filed in the case.
"The right answer is not obvious," the judge said.
Effective Dec. 31, the state plans to end agreements it has had with Planned Parenthood for the last 18 years due to the uncertainty of federal funds and a higher cost-per-participant rate at clinics in west Tulsa, midtown Tulsa and Broken Arrow. This year, the clinics received a total of $454,000 to provide WIC services.
The clinics average about 3,000 client visits per month — or about 18 percent of all WIC client visits in Tulsa County, according to state Health Department data. Officials have said other clinics in the area can accommodate those who have been using the Planned Parenthood centers.
While Planned Parenthood is a major provider of abortion and contraception nationwide, its regional office director Jill June of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland said in October that none of the Tulsa offices offer abortions.
Other conservative states have targeted Planned Parenthood for defunding. Indiana passed a law denying funding for general health services, and Texas sought to exclude services to poor women under the state Women's Health Program.
Terry Bryce, chief of the Health Department's WIC program, said he recommended that the contract not be renewed because of a declining client base and difficulty getting information from Planned Parenthood to verify budgets and invoices.
Bryce said Planned Parenthood's three Tulsa-area clinics recorded double-digit decreases in clients in the WIC program last year and that each has been in the top 10 of the highest percentage caseload declines of 126 WIC providers in the state.
Jones argued that the organization did not appreciate the Health Department's concerns.
"They were having problems across the board on several fronts. They didn't care," she said. "They didn't take the problems seriously."
Flaxman acknowledged that the Tulsa clinics had experienced problems but argued they had been resolved.