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Planned Parenthood suing over Alaska abortion regulation

Posted: January 30, 2014 - 12:33am

JUNEAU — Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest sued the state health commissioner Wednesday over regulations that would further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.

The lawsuit, filed in Anchorage Superior Court, seeks to have the regulations struck down as unconstitutional and to block the state from enforcing them. The lawsuit alleges the regulations violate the rights to equal protection, privacy and health and are also a violation of the administrative procedure act. The lawsuit says the department violated the act by not holding a public hearing on the proposal.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, said the regulations circumvent a 2001 Alaska Supreme Court decision, which held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs. The lawsuit lists as defendants Bill Streur, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services who proposed the regulations, and the department.

A health department spokeswoman said Streur had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment until he has reviewed it with the Department of Law.

The regulations are scheduled to take effect Sunday. Planned Parenthood also filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the regulations until the case is resolved or there is a further order by the court.

Under the regulations, the certificate to request Medicaid funds would feature two boxes.

With the first, a provider would have to certify the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or the abortion was performed to save the woman’s life. The so-called Hyde Amendment, attached to congressional spending bills, allows for federal funds to be used for this option.

With the second, a provider would have to indicate an abortion was medically necessary to avoid a threat of serious risk to the woman’s physical health from continuation of her pregnancy due to “impairment of a major bodily function.” It cites a list of conditions, including eclampsia (a serious complication of pregnancy), congestive heart failure, coma and a psychiatric disorder that places a woman in “imminent danger of medical impairment of a major bodily function” if an abortion is not performed.

There is also what Streur has called a “catch-all” option, described as “another physical disorder, physical injury, physical illness, including a physical condition arising from the pregnancy.”

In 2012, the department backed off language criticized as restricting the definition of a “medically necessary” abortion for purpose of payment under Medicaid. But Streur said earlier this month that he decided to take another look at the issue when the department did not see any change in the request for state funds for abortions when officials had hoped to see reductions. He also said he had asked the Department of Law if the proposal was unconstitutional or infringed on the supreme court and said the response he received was “a resounding no.”

The regulations are similar to a bill proposed last year by Sen. John Coghill, who said the court left for legislators to decide what “medically necessary” means. Supporters also argued that public money should not be used for “elective” abortions. The bill passed the Senate but was held over in the House. The regulations were proposed during the interim.

Janet Crepps, senior counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a release that women’s rights and access to reproductive health care “are meaningless if bans on coverage keep high-quality, safe, legal services out of reach. The ability of women who depend on Medicaid for their health care to obtain the care they need from medical professionals they trust must not be interfered with by politicians.”

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