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Judge says Texas cannot ban family planning group from health program

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A Texas judge ruled on Thursday that the state cannot ban Planned Parenthood, for now, from offering health care to low-income women through a state-run program even though some of the group's family planning and health clinics perform abortions.

"This is another victory for the women in Texas," Pete Schenkkan, a lawyer representing the group, told reporters after state District Judge Stephen Yelenosky said he would halt enforcement of the Texas law while Planned Parenthood's lawsuit contesting the state ban proceeds.

Although the Texas health program does not pay for abortions, earlier this year the state decided to enforce a law that had been on the books for several years barring funding for abortion providers and affiliates.

Planned Parenthood said it does not provide abortions at clinics that participate in the Texas Women's Health Program, but it is the nation's leading reproductive health and abortion provider and the state objects to its affiliation with clinics that do provide abortions.

A state district judge last month issued a temporary order blocking the state from enforcing the ban. That order was set to expire Friday. Planned Parenthood argued in court on Thursday that the ban is invalid under state law.

The Obama administration told Texas this week that federal funding - which pays for most of the Women's Health Program's $40 million annual cost - will stop at the end of the year. The program provides care such as breast and cervical cancer screenings and birth control, and Planned Parenthood says it serves nearly half the 115,000 Texas women who participate.

"We cannot continue to provide full federal funding for a program that is not in compliance with federal law any longer than is necessary to minimize disruption in care to beneficiaries," Cindy Mann of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services told Texas health officials in a letter on Wednesday.

In state district court in Austin on Thursday, Patricio Gonzales, chief executive of a Planned Parenthood affiliate in South Texas, testified that losing the funding would lead to the closure of two or three of his four clinics.

Mann told Texas officials: "It remains very important to us that the state complete its transition of the program before the end of the year to ensure there is not an abrupt end to services for beneficiaries."

Governor Rick Perry has said that the Texas is ready to roll out a state-funded program.

Planned Parenthood sued in state court after a federal appeals court declined to reconsider a ruling allowing Texas to exclude it. Earlier this week, the family planning organization filed a motion asking for its federal lawsuit to be paused while it pursues the state case.

Perry said on Thursday Planned Parenthood's efforts to bring suits in different courts were a "stalling tactic."

"Venue shopping and courtroom sleight-of-hand in no way helps the women of Texas. We see their stalling tactic for what it is - yet another attempt to unashamedly defy the will of Texas voters and taxpayers."

(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)

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