Updated at: 12/24/2012 5:06 PM
By SEAN MURPHY
(AP) OKLAHOMA CITY - A federal judge on Monday denied a request by Planned Parenthood to temporarily block Oklahoma from terminating a contract with the agency to provide nutritional services to low-income mothers.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that although the state’s stated reasons don’t seem to be sufficient cause for ending agreements with Planned Parenthood’s three Tulsa-area clinics that have been in place for 18 years, the group’s response to the state’s concerns was insufficient enough to warrant ending the relationship.
The decision will likely mean that the group will have to close one of the clinics and eliminate six full-time staff positions when the contracts end on Dec. 31, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s President and CEO Jill June said in a statement.
"We are truly disappointed with today’s court ruling and the impact it will have on the women and children in the Tulsa area who have relied on Planned Parenthood for (the federal Women, Infants and Children program) and the many other services we provide," June said. "While we are convinced of our claim, we will weigh all our possible options going forward."
The Oklahoma State Department of Health notified Planned Parenthood in September that it planned to end agreements it had with three Planned Parenthood for the last 18 years, citing the uncertainty of federal funds, declining caseloads and a higher cost-per-participant rate at clinics in west Tulsa, midtown Tulsa and Broken Arrow.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, which represents the health department, said in a statement that she was pleased with the judge’s decision.
"Judge Friot looked at the facts of the case and understood that the decision by the health department was based on legitimate business reasons," said spokeswoman Diane Clay.
But Planned Parenthood contends that the actual reason the state, whose leadership is among the most conservative in the country, decided not to renew the contracts was because the organization offers abortion services at some of its U.S. clinics, although it doesn’t at the three Tulsa-area clinics.
Terry Cline, the state’s health commissioner, testified during a hearing about Planned Parenthood’s motion last week that the group’s abortion-related activities should "absolutely not" factor into the state’s decisions on whether to renew or end the contracts. Cline and other Health Department administrators have said the contracts weren’t renewed because of a variety of long-term managerial and administrative problems, including a decline in caseloads, increasing client costs and a failure to resolve budgetary questions.
This year, the clinics received a total of $454,000 to provide WIC services and averaged 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.
In his ruling, Friot wrote that while Planned Parenthood’s performance deficiencies, primarily its declining caseloads, do not appear to be enough to result in the termination of its contracts, he added: "But a routine, solvable problem can become a justifiable basis for strong action when it is compounded by persistent unresponsiveness in addressing the challenge. Moreover, the frustrations in getting information out of (Planned Parenthood) on what should have been routine administrative matters rubbed additional salt into the wound."
Other conservative-led states have also taken steps to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.
Indiana passed the first law meant to deny Planned Parenthood federal funding for general health services, but a federal appeals court in October upheld a lower court’s finding that Indiana violated federal regulations when it enacted the law. A judge in Arizona blocked that state from applying a similar law to Planned Parenthood.
In Texas, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law last year that sought to exclude Planned Parenthood clinics that provide family planning and health services to poor women as part of the Texas Women’s Health Program.
In response to Texas’ decision to ban any clinic affiliated with abortion providers from taking part in its Women’s Health Program, federal authorities announced they would cut off funding that accounts for 90 percent of the program’s family-planning costs and half of its administrative costs. Texas tried to block the funding cut, but a federal judge last week sided with federal authorities, who say the state’s exclusion of Planned Parenthood violates U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)