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Rosy afterglow at the Pink Dome; euphoria short-lived


With the Dems making significant progress on their Take Back Texas 2010 agenda, and the term “moderate Republican” no longer the political-limbo sentence it was under Craddick, legislators averted an expected showdown over family-planning funding Friday. A handful of key Ds and Rs conferred, said one observer, and agreed to remove controversial provisions so they could get the budget done before heading home Friday (early Saturday morning, as it turned out). As a result, five rider amendments were ditched that would have drastically reduced or completely gutted funding for traditional low-income family-planning providers â?? read: Planned Parenthood. But if a bracing combo of huevos and pragmatism was in evidence at the Pink Dome, it was nowhere to be found at the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Foes of Planned Parenthood worked hard last week to make political hay of an apparent bureaucratic misstep at the Texas Department of State Health Services. In 2004, the director of the licensing division told the San Antonio-based South Central Texas Planned Parenthood chapter it did not need separate abortion licenses for four clinics where it planned to dispense the abortifacient mifepristone, but not provide in-clinic abortion services. Planned Parenthood operated those four clinics under that directive until this winter, when proposed regulations alerted President and CEO Jeffrey Hons that somewhere along the line the rules had changed. When Hons learned that the director who'd advised them had recently departed the agency, they applied for four licenses for those clinics.

Those applications were received by TDSHS on Friday, March 13, according to department spokesman Doug McBride. The following Monday, the agency received a request from the Texas Conservative Coalition (board members, in part: Rep. Phil King, Rep. Geanie Morrison, Rep. Warren Chisum) to investigate Planned Parenthood facilities that “perform elective abortions, although the facilities are not included on a recent list of abortion facilities.”

What a coincidence, eh?

Representative King announced at a Capitol press conference Tuesday that Planned Parenthood couldn't be trusted with the state's federal family-planning funds (which do not support abortion services or counseling; Planned Parenthood has been commended for keeping these services separate), although McBride was unable to tell the Current exactly when the rules regarding licensing of mifepristone-only clinics came into being (they've been in place a long time, he assured us). Hons says that following this dust-up, his organization found language on the department's website that dates to about a year ago, indicating that such clinics also need an abortion license, but that his organization was never told by TDSHS that they were out of compliance. During this same time period, he says, Planned Parenthood SCTX received glowing annual Quality Assurance reports from the state's independent auditor.

Nonetheless, on April 6, TDSHS Commissioner David Lakey sent a letter to the Texas Conservative Coalition that says, “As a result of your inquiry we are investigating services provided at several facilities.” The letter goes on to note that the four mife-only clinics have been issued cease-and-desist orders, but never mentions that Planned Parenthood had initiated license applications before TCC's “inquiry” or that the organization may have received mixed signals from his department.

Meanwhile, McBride's statement in the Express-News that “what was thrown wasn't what was caught” prompted Hons to send a sharply worded retort to the agency April 15, accompanied by a transcript from that 2004 phone call.

By Thursday, five riders were in play at the capitol that would have directed those family-planning funds, which Planned Parenthood relies on to serve low-income clients, to other health-care providers â?? some of them having nothing to do with preventing unintended pregnancies. Although disaster was avoided for the time being, the amendments could be revived in Conference Committee. House Speaker Joe Straus's next show of finesse and political muscle will come with the selection of those committee members.

In the meantime, reproductive-rights advocates can't rest easy. Today, the House State Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up Representative Frank Corte's version of Senator Dan Patrick's odious abortion ultrasound bill, and Rep. Morrison's abortion-reporting bill, which is almost prurient in the amount of detailed information it would require physicians to collect and submit: patients' reasons (in technicolor detail) for seeking an abortion, plus age, race or ethnicity, marital status, and city, county, state, and nation of residence. Although the proposed law states that the records submitted to the state must in no way identify patients, opponents worry that in small towns and counties, even general identifiers could be enough â?? especially when it comes to minors who receive judicial waivers and the judges who provide them.

But Morrison's bill would also require physicians to have every abortion patient sign a form declaring that she isn't being coerced, and those forms must also be submitted to the state by mail. Based on the proposed language, I'm not sure how that paperwork, stored at the state, would conceal patients' identities. Mind you, this is the same department from which news of Planned Parenthood's license applications apparently leaked over a single weekend, and although those may be in the public domain (we're awaiting the results of an open-record request), we've no reason to believe that the Texas Conservative Coalition's department mole has any compunction about private information.

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