Judge rejects Planned Parenthood motion on WIC contract
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
12/25/12 at 7:00 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - A federal judge has rejected efforts to force the state Health Department to continue a WIC contract with the Tulsa offices of Planned Parenthood.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot found there wasn't enough reason to issue the injunction sought by Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, which said its contract was killed because of the group's abortion rights advocacy.
State Health Department officials maintained that other problems - including Planned Parenthood's unresponsiveness to questions raised about contract administration - were the issue.
Planned Parenthood's "performance deficiencies do not, standing alone, strike the court as problems that would have been fatal to the relationship," Friot wrote in his decision issued Monday. "But a routine, solvable problem can become a justifiable basis for strong action when it is compounded by persistent unresponsiveness in addressing the challenge."
In the end, Friot found that there wasn't enough evidence that politics lay behind the decision.
"Having carefully considered all of the evidence presented by two well-represented parties, the court is persuaded that (Planned Parenthood) has failed to establish that there is a substantial likelihood that it will prevail on the merits of the pivotal issue of whether the termination decision was based on impermissible factors such as the advocacy and other abortion-related activities ."
Planned Parenthood's contract under the Women, Infants and Children program expires Dec. 31.
"We're pleased the judge reached the right decision," said Diane Clay, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Judge Friot looked at the facts of the case and understood that the decision by the Health Department was based on legitimate business reasons."
Attorneys for Planned Parenthood had argued the organization's support for abortion rights played a role in the department's decision not to renew the contracts for the federal program, although state Health Commissioner Terry Cline testified last week that that was not the case.
The WIC program provides nutrition education and food vouchers for women and children.
The agency gave Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma notice in September that it was terminating the contract after starting the legal process to renew the contract in August, according to testimony last week.
Terry J. Bryce, chief of the WIC program for the Health Department, said he recommended termination because the organization had a large decrease in clients, had a higher per-client cost for services and was unresponsive to repeated requests for information from his agency.
Bryce said he did so anticipating that he would be asked about it, but the decision to terminate the contract had nothing to do with abortion, he said.
Cline testified that no pressure was brought on him by politicians or members of his board about the contract.
Planned Parenthood officials said Monday they were unsure of their next step.
"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 WIC and the many other services we provide," said Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "While we are convinced of our claim, we will weigh all our possible options going forward."
Without a preliminary injunction in place, Planned Parenthood will be forced to stop WIC services on Dec. 31, meaning six full-time staff members will be eliminated and the group may close its west Tulsa health center.
"Planned Parenthood will remain in Tulsa as a trusted provider of women's health care, family practice and reproductive health education for thousands of people who rely on us for their health care needs," June said. "Planned Parenthood will be here for our patients no matter what."
The WIC program is a federal grant program to provide supplemental foods and nutrition education to low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breast-feeding women, infants, and young children who are found by a health professional to be at nutritional risk.
Planned Parenthood has participated in the Oklahoma Women, Infants and Children program for 18 years and is the largest independent provider of WIC in Tulsa County, providing services to nearly 3,000 women, infants, and children in September 2012.
Original Print Headline: State's WIC decision upheld
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308