HOUSTON – The federal government will stop funding a Texas health program that serves 130,000 low-income women because of a state law that bars abortion-affiliated clinics from getting public money, a top U.S. health official said Friday.
The federal money, which covers 90 percent of the state's $40 million program, will be phased out between May and September because the law violates federal regulations requiring that women have a choice in medical care, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a trip to Houston. That means the Women's Health Program will join a long list of programs nationwide on the chopping block because of their affiliations with Planned Parenthood or other groups that offer abortions.
The announcement came a day after Texas Gov. Rick Perry pledged to find state money to keep the program afloat, though details remain scarce about where the money would come from. Texas suffered massive spending cuts last year due to a $15 billion deficit, though a state health services official said Friday that Texas would prefer to increase its deficit than completely eliminate the program.
Perry blasted Sebelius' announcement, insisting Medicaid rules give states the right to determine which clinics are qualified to provide women's health care.
"The fact that the Obama administration would announce its decision to deny care for more than 100,000 low-income women during a press event before giving official notice to the state is a clear demonstration of the political motivation behind this decision," he said in a written statement, adding that Texas officials are still waiting for official word on the decision.
As is the case with other programs now in the national spotlight, the Women's Health Program provides cancer screenings, family planning and other women's health services. About 44 percent of women in the Texas program go to Planned Parenthood clinics, although none that accept funding from the program may perform abortions, and no federal funds are used to terminate pregnancies.
The problem in Texas is being caused by lawmakers' desire to prevent state funds from going to Planned Parenthood. The state is implementing a law that bars public funds from going to any programs, organizations or groups that are affiliated with abortions, even if they don't perform them.
After touring a hospital in Houston, Sebelius said the state law violates federal Medicaid regulations that require women be allowed to choose where they go for health care. Federal funds flowed to Texas under a waiver, but "we plan to let Texas know that that waiver will not be extended," Sebelius said.
The money will be phased out so women have time to find alternative care, she said.
The state was warned that implementing the law would jeopardize federal funding, and Texas chose not to immediately enforce it when it was passed, Sebelius added.
"They knew ... they are not allowed to deny women the right to choose," Sebelius said. "Women would be losing their doctor, their medical home, their choice."
Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, said money to pay for the program would be diverted from others that are under budget — though she didn't offer specifics. If that doesn't cover the costs, she said, the state would increase its deficit to pay for the services because officials believe that if low-income women don't have access to birth control, the birth rate would rise and cost the state another $57 million in maternity bills.
Last year, Texas lawmakers slashed state funding for women's health and family planning programs by $73.6 million — cutting services to 160,000 women. They also took $10 million from a separate family planning budget line and shifted those responsibilities to organizations that administer Medicaid in Texas.
Now, with the expected cut in federal funds, "there's a huge gap in family planning" in Texas, Sebelius said.
State Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, said she and members of Congress are negotiating with Sebelius and federal officials to find a way to ensure that the funds don't stop flowing.
And while Sebelius said her department has been trying to work with the state to provide a solution, she didn't indicate that would happen before March 14, when the state plans to begin enforcing the law.
"We have been working with Texas. We're eager to work with Texas to find a solution," Sebelius said. "But if Texas chooses to go down a road that violates the law, we really have no choice."
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Associated Press writers Chris Tomlinson in Austin and Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this story.