The “remarkably low” number of S.C. Medicaid recipients who depend on Planned Parenthood should not be allowed to overrule the public’s larger interest in blocking Medicaid payments to the abortion provider, attorneys for the state argued in new court filings.

Attorneys for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services filed a response Monday to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s motion seeking a temporary restraining order to block Gov. Henry McMaster from booting the health care provider from the S.C. Medicaid network.

Planned Parenthood and a patient filed suit in U.S. District Court late last month, asking a judge to reverse McMaster’s order kicking it out of the state’s Medicaid network. The suit was filed against Joshua Baker, head of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the Medicaid program.

Planned Parenthood said McMaster’s July 13 order terminated its ability to seek Medicaid reimbursements for family planning and other health services — including birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases — that it provides to more than 300 of the state’s poorest women, men and teens at its Columbia and Charleston clinics.

Critics said the move by McMaster — who is running against Democratic state Rep. James Smith for S.C. governor in November — violated federal Medicaid laws since Planned Parenthood provides health care services, not just abortions. (Federal law already bans clinics from using tax money to perform abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or if a mother’s life is endangered.)

However, Health and Human Services attorneys argue Medicaid reimbursements are “foundational” to supporting Planned Parenthood’s operations, including non-Medicaid services, which include abortion.

In the past two years, Planned Parenthood has received less than $85,000 in Medicaid payments.

Health and Human Services attorneys also contend Medicaid “expressly permits states to exclude providers … for ethical, professional and fiscal misconduct.”

A federal appeals court last year sided with the state of Arkansas, saying it can block Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood in that state. In the wake of a controversial video, that ruling reversed earlier court orders forbidding the state from suspending Medicaid payments.

That video, leaked by anti-abortion activists, purports to show Planned Parenthood staff discussing sales of fetal tissue for medical research. Planned Parenthood has said the tapes are fraudulent and multiple investigations have deemed the allegations as false.

Other federal courts have ruled Medicaid patients have a right to choose any qualified medical provider, including Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood called McMaster’s order an “unlawful and politically motivated decision,” solely issued because the organization “provides safe, legal abortion outside the Medicaid program.”

Barring Planned Parenthood will mean poor South Carolinians in underserved areas of the state will lose their health care provider of choice, resulting in reduced access to care for many, the organization argues. It notes South Carolina has a relatively large Medicaid population, with higher rates of key health problems compared to the nation as a whole, including rising rates for sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and HIV/AIDS.

“These factors make it all the more critical to public health for the state to maintain the fullest possible network of willing, qualified providers to ensure patients get the care they need,” Planned Parenthood argues.

However, Health and Human Services attorneys said only 257 of the approximately 1.2 million Medicaid recipients received services from Planned Parenthood’s Columbia and Charleston clinics in 2017.

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“(T)he fact is that there are many other providers available to see (Planned Parenthood’s) limited number of patients,” the state agency said. “After all, the vast majority of Medicaid recipients in need of reproductive health services and birth control prescriptions receive those services and prescriptions elsewhere.”

Planned Parenthood contends it provides a vital health care safety net for low-income patients in areas suffering from a shortage of providers.

McMaster is not a defendant in Planned Parenthood’s suit, and his office declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services also declined comment, stating it does not comment on pending litigation.

A hearing on Planned Parenthood’s motion for a temporary restraining order is scheduled for Aug. 23 in Charleston. However, the state has asked the suit be moved to Columbia “for the convenience of the parties and witnesses.”

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Blocking Medicaid to Planned Parenthood does more good than harm