Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit against Florida state health officials on Thursday in an effort to head off a defunding bill signed into law in March. The new regulations, set to take effect July 1, would prohibit public funding from being used at any medical facility that performs abortions or is somehow affiliated with abortion providers.
This would effectively block Medicaid patients from seeking health care at any Planned Parenthood location, even if that facility does not offer abortion services. It would also block other public health funding from going toward those facilities; the Gainesville Planned Parenthood, which neither accepts Medicaid nor performs abortions, still stands to lose $30,000 in county support for its breast exams, STI screenings, pap smears, pelvic exams, and contraceptive programs. At other Planned Parenthood facilities and other reproductive health clinics, Medicaid funds for things like birth control and well-woman exams make up a large proportion of their sustaining income. Florida’s law could put many at risk of closure.
Using taxpayer dollars to pay for elective abortions is already illegal; no one is ever able to use Medicaid to obtain one. The only purpose of the new funding restrictions, as the lawsuit states, is “to punish, harass, and stigmatize the state’s abortion providers for their and their patients’ exercise of constitutional rights.” In the suit, Planned Parenthood accuses Florida of violating federal and state guarantees of due process, privacy, and equal protection by singling out abortion providers without any justification other than the state legislature’s objection to a constitutionally secured medical procedure. The suit also takes issue with the new law’s bizarre requirement that the state inspect thousands of private medical records at facilities that provide abortions, giving the Florida government access to specific details of patients’ medical histories, including their HIV status, abortion history, and mental health treatments.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote in April, this targeted attack on Planned Parenthood—along with similar restrictions passed by several other states since last year’s defunding obsession began—violates federal law. Banning Medicaid recipients from using their benefits at specific health centers runs afoul of the Social Security Act’s “free choice provider” provision, which states that people who meet the criteria for Medicaid can get health care at any qualified medical provider.
Like most abortion restrictions, this one would have an outsized impact on poor women and people of color, who are more likely to rely on Medicaid for basic health care needs and face higher barriers to accessible reproductive health care. In two Florida counties, Planned Parenthood provides almost half of all contraceptive services at health clinics that get public funding, giving low-income patients few, if any, other options to avoid pregnancy. After Texas torpedoed funding for Planned Parenthood in 2011, the birth rate among women who’d previously used publicly funded contraception shot up 27 percent.
“Let’s call this what it is: an attack on people who already have the least access to care, all in the name of politics,” Barbara A. Zdravecky, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement. “Lawmakers have gone so far as to claim that women can go to dentists for health care. This goes to show why Florida politicians have no business writing laws about women’s health.”
Florida cannot afford to limit the availability of public funding for reproductive health: It’s already at the top of the list of U.S. cervical cancer and HIV diagnoses, and it’s tied for last place when it comes to statewide women’s health. Imagine what the state could accomplish if it put its tax dollars toward contraception and proven public-health initiatives instead of fighting lawsuits for breaking federal laws.