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By Pete Williams
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left lower court victories intact for Planned Parenthood in a legal battle with states over access by Medicaid patients to the group’s services.
The dispute did not involve abortion, but the action by the justices keeps a hot-button political issue off the docket. Three of the court’s conservatives said the court should have taken the case.
After an anti-abortion group released videos in 2015 that purported to show officials from Planned Parenthood talking about selling fetal tissue, several states immediately terminated Medicaid provider agreements with the group’s affiliates. The videos were largely discredited, but the states involved said they found the allegations troubling.
Medicaid patients in Kansas and Louisiana, two of the states that took action against Planned Parenthood, claimed the states violated Medicaid’s requirement that patients must be free to seek their health care from any qualified and willing provider. They sued, and lower federal courts found in their favor, entering injunctions that ordered those states to lift their bans.
In declining to take up the states’ appeals, the Supreme Court’s action on Monday leaves those lower court victories for the Medicaid patients in place.
Planned Parenthood offers Medicaid patients vaccines, wellness examinations, screening for breast and cervical cancer, contraception services and pregnancy testing. But abortion is not offered, because federal funds cannot pay for them except in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. The Kansas affiliate said it provides “essential medical care for hundreds of low-income Kansans each year.”
The states argued that the Medicaid law does not give individual patients the right to sue when health care providers are excluded. If a state acts improperly, they said, the law provides only one remedy: The federal government can withhold Medicaid funds from the states. “Allowing private enforcement destroys the careful balance Congress established between the states and federal agencies,” lawyers for Louisiana told the court.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken up the appeals because the issue of whether Medicaid recipients can sue is an important one.
“These cases are not about abortion rights,” Thomas wrote. “So what explains the court’s refusal to do its job here? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.'”
“Some tenuous connection to a politically fraught issue does not justify abdicating our judicial duty,” he said.
The states had argued that with more than 70 million people enrolled in Medicaid, allowing individuals to sue could swamp the system and interfere with state systems for evaluating health care providers.
Planned Parenthood urged the court not to take up the state appeals, arguing that the lower court rulings involved preliminary injunctions, not final rulings on the merits of the lawsuits.