LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday that Arkansas can block Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, two years after the state ended its contract with the group over videos secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group.
In a 2-1 ruling, an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel vacated preliminary injunctions a federal judge issued preventing the state from suspending any Medicaid payments for services rendered to patients from Planned Parenthood. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson ended the state's Medicaid contract with the organization in 2015.
The court ruled the unnamed patients suing the state did not have the right to challenge the defunding decision. The panel did not directly address Arkansas' reason for terminating the contract.
The decision could potentially lead to a showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court over efforts by Arkansas and several other states to defund Planned Parenthood that have been blocked by other courts. In a dissenting opinion to Wednesday's ruling, Judge Michael Melloy noted that several other federal courts have ruled the opposite way on defunding and said the patients have a right to challenge the end of Planned Parenthood's contract.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker initially ordered the state to continue the payments to three patients who had sued over the move and later expanded that order to anyone who seeks or wants to obtain services from the organization's health centers in Arkansas.
Planned Parenthood said it's evaluating options for challenging the appeals court's decision. The ruling does not take effect until the court issues its mandate in about one to two weeks, and Planned Parenthood said it's still serving Medicaid patients in Arkansas.
"We will do everything in our power to protect our patients' access to birth control, cancer screenings, and other lifesaving care," Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "Extreme politicians are trying to defund and shut down Planned Parenthood — and this is not what Americans want. Every person deserves the opportunity to lead a healthy life and access care at a provider they know and trust, no matter who you are or where you live."
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge praised the court's ruling.
"The Court found that Planned Parenthood and the three patients it recruited could not contest in federal court Arkansas's determination that a medical provider has engaged in misconduct that merits disqualification from the Medicaid program," Rutledge, a Republican, said in a statement. "All patients should have access to ethical, quality and responsible health care, and should never be beholden to a company that is only seeking to protect its profits."
Hutchinson also praised the ruling, saying he blocked the funding because he believed there was evidence Planned Parenthood engaged in wrongful conduct.
"This is a substantial legal victory for the right of the state to determine whether Medicaid providers are acting in accordance with best practices and affirms the prerogative of the state to make reasoned judgments on the Medicaid program," he said in a statement.
The state has said Planned Parenthood received $51,000 in Medicaid funds in the fiscal year before Hutchinson's decision to terminate the contract. None of the money paid for abortions. Planned Parenthood operates health centers in Fayetteville and Little Rock.
Republican lawmakers and governors around the country targeted the organization after several videos were released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress. The center said the videos showed that Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue for profit.
Planned Parenthood said the videos were heavily edited and denied seeking any payments beyond legally permitted reimbursement of costs. A Texas grand jury that looked into the videos cleared Planned Parenthood of misusing fetal tissue
The decision is the latest in a series of federal court fights over efforts in solidly Republican Arkansas to limit abortion.
Baker last month blocked Arkansas from enforcing four new abortion restrictions, including a ban on a common second-trimester procedure. Another federal judge is weighing whether to halt another new law that would allow Arkansas to suspend or revoke an abortion clinic's license for any violation. In a separate case, the 8th Circuit last month vacated another preliminary injunction Baker issued preventing Arkansas from enforcing new limits on how the abortion pill is administered.