The saga surrounding Planned Parenthood took an odd turn on Thursday. Investigators with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) showed up unannounced at clinics in four cities. State health officials also served Planned Parenthood affiliates with subpoenas seeking patient and employee records. These moves appeared related to an investigation into whether the controversial women’s health provider has committed Medicaid fraud.
All that seems copacetic. But the day’s events were unusual for two reasons.
For one, the subpoenas the state sent to Planned Parenthood were incredibly wide-ranging. State officials are undoubtedly entitled—as part of a Medicaid fraud investigation—to medical records and personal information of Medicaid patients. But the state also sought names, salaries, home addresses, and home phone numbers for all Planned Parenthood employees. It’s not everyday you see the government subpoenaing the personal information for all employees of a private company. The Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal has an interesting story today examining whether the subpoenas go too far.
But the oddest part of the subpoenas was the timing.
They were sent three days after HHSC officials announced their intent to remove Planned Parenthood affiliates from the state’s Medicaid program. In notices of termination sent on Monday, state health officials asserted that Planned Parenthood had committed Medicaid fraud egregious enough to warrant expulsion from the program.
In their letters on Monday, HHSC also cited undercover videos made by an anti-abortion group that purport to show Planned Parenthood staffers selling fetal tissue. But those don’t really matter in this case. The videos concern abortion services, which are largely unrelated to the family planning services and cancer screenings Planned Parenthood provides to Medicaid recipients.
As I wrote earlier this week, Texas officials will have a very difficult time removing Planned Parenthood from Medicaid unless they can prove the group has committed Medicaid fraud. So, practically speaking, the bottom line is this: Either the state has evidence of Medicaid fraud by Planned Parenthood or it doesn’t. Everything else is just noise.
And Thursday’s subpoenas lead me to think state officials don’t have the goods—at least not yet.
More than that, it seems downright backward (if not unfair) for the state to declare Planned Parenthood guilty of Medicaid fraud—and then go looking for the evidence to back up that pronouncement. In this instance, there was no presumption of innocence.
Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune nails it with this analogy:
But it does seem like you would do the investigation and ask for the financial records before you shut everything down and put out a news release to brag about it.
Texas has apparently started a Department of Pre-Crime, like the fictional one depicted in Minority Report, the Philip K. Dick story that became a Steven Spielberg movie in 2002. Tom Cruise played a cop whose job was to arrest people who were about to commit crimes, which would be sort of a cool idea if you were always right.
Maybe the state of Texas has this one right. But it was curious to watch the order of things.
It sure looks like sloppy work. How do investigators justify reaching a conclusion before they’ve finished their investigation—and even before they’ve obtained relevant records?
It’s not yet clear if the state’s effort to boot Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid is a legitimate response to genuine Medicaid fraud or a political stunt. But the timing of Thursday’s subpoenas sure point to the latter.