AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked a new Texas rule that would have excluded Planned Parenthood clinics from offering women's health services for the poor in the state because the organization provides abortions.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in favor of Planned Parenthood means thousands of women enrolled in the Texas Women's Health Program who go to its clinics will not be required to find new healthcare providers, at least for now.
"The court is particularly influenced by the potential for immediate loss of access to necessary medical services by several thousand Texas women," Yeakel said in a 24-page ruling.
The preliminary injunction is a big win for Planned Parenthood, which has been under siege in several states by abortion opponents. In the past year alone, states including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, in addition to Texas, have all moved to block Planned Parenthood from receiving taxpayer money.
"For many women, we are the only doctor's visit they will have this year," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "This ruling affirms what women have known all along: politics simply doesn't have a place in women's health."
The state Health and Human Services Commission will comply with the order and will work with the state attorney general to determine its next steps, spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said.
"We remain confident that federal law gives states the right to establish criteria for Medicaid providers," Goodman said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and some Republican lawmakers have said they would rather eliminate the women's healthcare program entirely than direct money to Planned Parenthood clinics.
The Texas program, which is part of the federal-state Medicaid program, provides cancer screenings, birth control and other health services to more than 100,000 low-income women.
The program does not pay for abortions or allow abortion providers to participate in the program. The new Texas state rule would ban program money from going to affiliates of abortion providers.
BAN ON AFFILIATES
State law has included that ban on affiliates since the program began in 2007, but the state did not enforce it. Texas notified the federal government last year that it intended to begin enforcing the ban, effectively excluding Planned Parenthood from the program.
According to Planned Parenthood, about 49 percent of the women who received services through the program in 2010 obtained some services through a Planned Parenthood provider. Planned Parenthood said it would lose about $13.5 million of annual funding for preventive care and family planning if the rule is applied, forcing it to close clinics and lay off staff.
Texas has already made deep cuts in other family-planning programs. As a result, state subsidies that once provided low-cost birth control to 220,000 women a year now cover fewer than 60,000 women a year.
The federal government pays for 90 percent of the cost of the Texas Women's Health Program, which serves low-income women of reproductive age who do not qualify for regular Medicaid coverage. Texas puts up just $4 million a year.
Critics object to Planned Parenthood receiving taxpayer money, which cannot be used to provide abortions, arguing that a steady stream of government grants provide an indirect subsidy by helping pay utility bills and keep doctors on staff.
Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider, terminating about 330,000 pregnancies a year.
It gets about a third of its revenue - $360 million in 2009 - from government grants to provide birth control, gynecological exams and care for sexually transmitted diseases to low-income women.
(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan and Stephanie Simon; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)