Health Care

Judge blocks parts of abortion law hours before it goes into effect

In this 2009 photo, women are concealed from view by volunteers as they enter the Planned Parenthood of Collier County clinic in Naples.
In this 2009 photo, women are concealed from view by volunteers as they enter the Planned Parenthood of Collier County clinic in Naples. Associated Press

A federal judge late Thursday night blocked parts of a controversial law that would have eliminated taxpayer funding of preventive care at abortion clinics and required the state to inspect patient records of as many as 35,000 women.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle sided with Planned Parenthood when he ordered the state to restore contracts with abortion clinics and to halt plans to inspect abortion records for half of the more than 70,000 patients a year who have the procedure done in Florida.

The injunction came down just hours before the law was supposed to go into effect Friday. It simply blocks these parts of the law while the lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood is argued or unless a higher court overturns his decision.

In the injunction, Hinkle wrote that he expects the defunding and record inspection provisions will likely be found to be unconstitutional.

State health officials named in the lawsuit have not appealed the injunction to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Officials with the Florida Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration both said they were “reviewing” Hinkle’s order.

Planned Parenthood lauded the decision. The group is now trying to renew contracts with county health departments and local governments to provide services using tax dollars.

The contracts — which include HIV testing, cancer screening and education programs — expired Thursday when the state fiscal year ended. Because of the new abortion law, they could not be renewed.

“We are calling our local contacts and asking that they renew our contracts,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “They expired the 30th, so that’s why we’re working to renew them quickly.”

Hinkle’s ruling instructs the state not to cancel any of the alternative arrangements it made to replace services provided by Planned Parenthood. Dr. Douglas Stein, a Tampa urologist, still plans to provide vasectomies for the health departments in Orange and Sarasota counties.

Tim O’Connor, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department, said four of its clinics will extend hours to provide family planning services for teenagers.

Other county health departments impacted by the changes could not be reached or declined to comment.

State health department officials did not comment on the impact of potential contract changes.

Hinkle’s decision was not a surprise.

In court Wednesday, Hinkle raised concerns about both of the provisions he blocked.

Under the law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott this spring, no state money can be used for non-abortion care at abortion clinics. Planned Parenthood said it stands to lose $500,000 in state money as a result.

Hinkle’s ruling says that portion of the law essentially discourages clinics from performing abortions, which he said is unconstitutional.

“You can’t defund based on exercising a constitutional right,” he said Wednesday.

Hinkle further ruled that the state is justified to inspect health records but doesn’t have reason to check half of all patient records.

Hinkle, who was appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton in 1996, did not block new definitions of the trimesters of a pregnancy, which Planned Parenthood challenged, but which he said were resolved by the state’s lawyers in court.

Other parts of the law went into effect, including a requirement that abortion doctors obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital or abortion clinics have transfer agreements in place.

There are no known abortion clinics expected to shut down in the state as a result.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.