AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas judge refused to allow Planned Parenthood to temporarily rejoin a health program for low-income women on Friday, saying the organization would unlikely win its court fight to get around a new law that disqualifies health clinics with any affiliation to abortion providers.
Planned Parenthood was one of the largest chains of health clinics in the Texas Women's Health Program, which provides cancer screenings, contraceptives and other basic health services to more than 110,000 eligible low-income women statewide. Planned Parenthood offers abortion services at some of its U.S. clinics, but not at any of its Texas facilities.
State District Judge Steve Yelenosky acknowledged that excluding Parent Parenthood would likely to impact women who depend on the program's free services. But the judge said the organization would likely to lose if its lawsuit went to trial.
Yelenosky previously sided with Planned Parenthood in November — but that was before federal funding stopped paying for 90 percent of the program on Jan. 1. Federal officials severed ties with the program because of the new rules, saying it was illegal to deny a woman the right to choose her own doctor.
"In this suit, because there are no federal funds at issue, the successful argument in the first case isn't availing," Yelenosky said Friday.
Yelenosky's ruling does not exhaust Planned Parenthood's legal option, but it is a blow to the organization's two-year fight to rejoin the program. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood declined to say Friday whether they would press for a trial.
Planned Parenthood was kicked out of the taxpayer-funded program once the federal funding stopped. Without state reimbursements or finding new sources of funding, the organization has warned that clinics across the state could be shuttered because most of their patients can't afford to pay.
"It's gonna be a challenge in the days ahead for Planned Parenthoods across the state to be able to maintain the same level of service that we've had prior to now," said Sarah Wheat, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of the state Health and Human Services Commission, applauded the court's decision.
"This allows us to continue to provide important family planning and preventive care to low-income women and fully enforce state law," Janek said in a statement. "We've got the Texas Women's Health Program up and running, and we'll continue to provide help to any woman who needs to find a new doctor or clinic."
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law in 2011 excluding providers that support abortion rights — which almost exclusively affected Planned Parenthood — from the program.
Patricio Gonzales, chief executive of four Planned Parenthood clinics along the Texas-Mexico border, testified Friday that returning to the program is crucial because 50 percent of his budget comes from state reimbursements. Unless other funding is obtained, Gonzales said, only one of his clinics will remain open come April.
"We have been able to refer some of them to other providers," Gonzales said. "Other clients have been very upset. Some of them have stayed and paid a full fee."
The state's exclusion of providers that support abortion rights — the so-called "affiliate ban rule" — has been mired in multiple lawsuits since the Legislature passed the new law.
State attorneys have made a "poison pill" argument, saying allowing Planned Parenthood back into the program would cause the whole program to shut down since the new rules don't allow abortion affiliates to participate.
From the start, Planned Parenthood has argued it was uniquely essential to the program because its clinics in 2012 provided services to nearly half of all Texas women enrolled in the program.
State health officials say they've recruited more new providers than ever and that former Planned Parenthood patients will easily be able to find the same services elsewhere.
Joseph Potter, a University of Texas sociology professor studying the impact of the changes, also testified Friday for Planned Parenthood. He said finding a new clinic or getting there isn't easy for low-income patients who are less likely to have a car or money for transportation.
"When women have to find a new provider, it's a surprisingly big deal," Potter said.