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Oklahoma attorney general sues HHS over loss of federal family planning funding

 Gentner Drummond wears a dark suit and burgundy tie as he speaks behind a podium before a screen with featuring the Oklahoma Office of Attorney General seal.
Graycen Wheeler
Gentner Drummond announced his plans for legal action at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Tuesday.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a suit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after it suspended funding for family planning services the Oklahoma State Department of Health has received for over 40 years.

Clinics participating in Title X programs offer confidential and low-cost family planning resources for all ages, including contraceptives, counseling and pregnancy testing.

Title X programs require information and counseling on all options, which includes abortion if a pregnant patient requests it. Oklahoma’s funding was revoked after it refused to give patients that information.

Drummond’s lawsuit seeks to restore the funding, arguing that federal law says money should not be used in Title X programs where abortion is a form of family planning.

“Title X in no way requires abortion referrals for a State’s continued participation,” the lawsuit reads. “Rather, sans authority, HHS seeks to punish Oklahoma for the policies adopted by Oklahoma’s elected representatives to protect unborn life. HHS is interfering with rights reserved to the people and their elected representatives despite a clear federal mandate.”

Abortion is mostly illegal in Oklahoma, as anyone can be charged with a felony and face up to five years in prison if they help a woman terminate a pregnancy except to save her life.

How did Oklahoma lose funding?

A letter of termination notice for the Oklahoma State Department of Health Family Planning Services Project was included in the suit.

It highlights how the department initially accepted the $4.5 million award over three years on May 24, 2022. On August 29, 2022, it submitted a change to its policy for providing nondirective options counseling by sharing a link to the HHS Office of Population Affairs. That site doesn’t directly provide information on abortion.

HHS found the proposal didn’t comply with Title X requirements, denied it and allowed the department to submit an alternate compliance proposal that referred clients to another entity, like the site All-Options Talkline.

This talk line provides support to people who want to talk about a past or current experience with abortion, adoption, parenting, infertility or pregnancy loss.

The Frontier reported that the department briefly changed its policy to include the All-Options Talkline as a resource in an alternate proposal. But, on May 5, the department changed its proposal again and informed federal employees it wouldn’t include the site because of Oklahoma’s near-total ban on abortion.

From there, HHS said Oklahoma violated Title X, and according to the lawsuit, the department received notice its award would be terminated on June 27.

Oklahoma’s funding was reallocated to Community Health Connection and Missouri Family Health Council, receiving $216,000 in newly authorized federal funds and $3,250,000 in supplemental funds, respectively. The lawsuit argues these HHS awards render the health department’s administrative appeal "futile."

“The federal government’s sole justification for disrupting decades of health services and determining that an out-of-state entity in Missouri was in the best position to provide necessary health services to citizens in the State of Oklahoma is that the Health Department refuses to approve of referrals for abortions,” the lawsuit reads.

The impacts of losing Title X

The State Department of Health has received Title X funding since 1971, and it is dipping into $4.5 million in state funds to continue family planning services through county health departments. But birth control and pregnancy testing are no longer available without a parent’s permission.

Drummond’s suit notes that health care access in Oklahoma will be adversely impacted without the program.

“In many instances, particularly in rural Oklahoma communities, the Health Department and county health departments may be one of the only access points for critical preventative services for tens or even hundreds of miles,” the lawsuit reads.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a news release he supports Drummond’s suit.

“Oklahoma stands up for life,” Stitt said in the release. “The Biden administration’s actions to terminate our healthcare funding due to our pro-life laws is simply an abuse of power. These funds are essential to provide necessary services for Oklahomans across the state.”

Oklahoma Health Commissioner Keith Reed said in the release he is grateful Oklahoma is taking action against the HHS decision.

“We are committed to working alongside state leadership to see these funds reinstated,” Reed said in the release.

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Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.
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