COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a blow to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, the U.S. Supreme Court has dashed — at least for the time being — his yearslong legal effort to eliminate Medicaid funding for South Carolina’s Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide medical services for eligible needy people.
“Petition denied,” said a two-word filing Tuesday by the nation’s highest court, killing the governor’s bid to win a hearing before the full U.S. Supreme Court about money going to Planned Parenthood’s two medical clinics in South Carolina, clinics that supporters say provide vital health care services to thousands of low-income men and women each year.
McMaster was not a named defendant in the case, in which a Planned Parenthood Medicaid patient, Julie Edwards, sued state officials for denying the money. But the governor is the boss of the named defendant, Joshua Baker, who is head of the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency that distributes Medicaid funds.
Besides Edwards, another plaintiff was Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, which oversees clinics in a number of Southern states.
For some, the case pitted abortion foes against supporters of a women’s right to choose and involved Medicaid money going to the state’s two Planned Parenthood clinics, one in Charleston and one in Columbia. For others it was seen as a bid to cut off federal funds that go to those in most need of affordable health care.
“The governor was certainly hoping the Supreme Court would hear the case, but his resolve to make sure no taxpayer dollars either directly or indirectly subsidize abortions in South Carolina is steadfast. This isn’t over. We will continue to appeal the decision on the merits to the appellate court and beyond, if necessary,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes in an email.
The case will likely go now back to the 4th Circuit, the middle appeals court between the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court of trial judges in South Carolina. Any final resolution could be years off.
Meanwhile, an injunction by U.S. District Judge Mary Lewis of Columbia remains in place, preventing McMaster from freezing Medicaid money for South Carolina’s Planned Parenthood clinics.
It was the second high profile legal setback this month against McMaster and his conservative backers. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a 5-0 decision that McMaster’s push to give $32 million in federal money to private schools was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision was also a setback for 86 state lawmakers in the General Assembly, who hired a lawyer, Tim Newton of Columbia, to write a friend of the court brief urging it to take up the case.
Lawmakers signing the failed brief included Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield; Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York; and House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York.
Their brief, filed in April, noted that South Carolina has a “strong culture and longstanding tradition of protecting and defending life and liberty of the unborn.” Moreover, state law “specifically prohibits state funds appropriated for family planning from being used to pay for abortions,” the brief said.
The case began in July 2018, when McMaster issued an executive order requiring Baker’s agency not to give Medicaid money to Planned Parenthood.
In her complaint filed in U.S. District Court, two weeks after McMaster’s order, plaintiff Edwards said that DHHS made an “unlawful and politically motivated decision … at the direction of Governor McMaster, to terminate” Planned Parenthood’s status as a qualified recipient of Medicaid funds “solely on the basis that (Planned Parenthood) provides safe, legal abortion outside the Medicaid program.”
The complaint said Planned Parenthood clinics have operated in South Carolina for 40 years and that abortions are just a fraction of their services to low-income people.
“Some folks see this only as an abortion issue, but abortion is only a very small part of what the clinics do,” Malissa Burnette said Wednesday. She is a Columbia lawyer who worked on the case for Planned Parenthood.
Other Planned Parenthood services include family planning, reproductive health, breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening and treatment, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy testing and counseling and screening for diabetes, depression, anemia, cholesterol and high blood pressure, the complaint said.
The case was before the U.S. Supreme Court on an appeal from a 4th Circuit Court decision that ruled South Carolina officials cannot stop Medicaid recipients from using their coverage to seek care at Planned Parenthood clinics.
That 4th Circuit opinion said the law gives Medicaid recipients the right to choose any health care provider that is “qualified to perform the service or services required.”
In the complaint, Edwards and Planned Parenthood said that the number of Medicaid patients seen each year in South Carolina clinics was “over 300.”
But “without Medicaid reimbursements, and without other financial support to fill that gap, (Planned Parenthood) may not be able to keep providing services in the same manner it has been,” the complaint said.
Medicaid only covers what are deemed “medically necessary abortions,” or those in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening emergencies, the complaint said.
South Carolina’s two Planned Parenthood clinics see about 6,000 patients a year.
Helene Krasnoff, Planned Parenthood Federation of America vice president of public policy litigation, said the Supreme Court decision “leaves in place a ruling that makes clear what we have long said: Blocking people with low incomes from choosing the provider they know and trust is unlawful. “
(Reporter Maayan Schechter contributed to this story.)
©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)