- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana and Alabama may be violating federal law by ending state Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, federal health officials warned the states after both announced they were cutting off the payments.

Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday that the federal Medicaid agency notified the states of the possible violation.

“Longstanding Medicaid laws prohibit states from restricting individuals who have coverage through Medicaid from receiving care from a qualified provider,” Griffis said in a statement. “By restricting which provider a woman could choose to receive care from, women could lose access to critical preventive care, such as cancer screenings.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, announced Aug. 3 that his administration was ending provider agreements that reimbursed Planned Parenthood for providing health services to low-income patients through Medicaid.

Republican Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley followed with a similar announcement three days later.

The governors cited secretly recorded videos released by an anti-abortion group showing Planned Parenthood officials describing how they provide aborted fetus tissue for medical research.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, spoke to health agency officials in both states shortly after each announcement, referencing federal law that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to get covered services from any qualified provider.

CMS could withhold federal Medicaid funds to the states if it deems them out of compliance with federal law, and Planned Parenthood has said it is considering a lawsuit in Louisiana. Federal courts have overturned previous attempts in Arizona and Indiana to disqualify Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursements.

In the South, withholding funding would have the most impact in Louisiana, where more dollars have been paid to Planned Parenthood. Alabama’s Medicaid program has paid Planned Parenthood health clinics in Mobile and Birmingham only about $4,400 over the past two years for contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood doesn’t currently provide abortions in Louisiana, but offers cancer screenings, birth control, gynecology exams, sexually transmitted disease treatment and other health services in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The state had paid more than $287,000 in reimbursements to the organization for such services provided to Medicaid patients in the last budget year, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Neither state has changed its approach to the organization’s clinics since the federal warnings.

Olivia Watkins Hwang, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana health department, cited a state law that allows the termination of any Medicaid provider agreement within 30 days. She said the department doesn’t believe it has violated federal law because other Medicaid providers offer the same services as Planned Parenthood.

But Melissa Flournoy, Louisiana state director for Planned Parenthood, said Jindal’s decision will lessen health services for more than 4,300 Medicaid patients who got care from the organization’s clinics in the state.

Republicans around the country have targeted Planned Parenthood after several videos were released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress.

The center said the videos showed Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood said the organization receives legal payment only for the cost of the procedure and requires a mother’s consent before the tissue is given to researchers.

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Associated Press Writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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