SACRAMENTO, Calif.--A good lawyer is a must to fight civil lawsuits, but a piece of legislation can prove even better.
That may be the case with Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, which recently sponsored a bill to unequivocally allow community and free clinics to contract with commercial health plans.
Gov. Gray Davis said it would ensure continuity of care to low-income patients and signed it into law on May 31.
Officials said the legislation also closed a big loophole for Planned Parenthood in defending itself against a lawsuit filed last year by a statewide chain of abortion clinics.
Long Beach, Calif.-based Family Planning Associates Medical Group sued Planned Parenthood in Orange County Superior Court after Kaiser Permanente awarded Planned Parenthood a contract in 1998 to perform abortions on its patients; Family Planning Associates previously held the contract.
The suit claims that under the old state law, Planned Parenthood's status as a clinic should bar it from contracting with third parties. The case has yet to go to trial.
Many of California's 692 free and community clinics already contract with health plans through Medi-Cal managed-care programs or Healthy Families, California's Children's Health Insurance Program.
However, officials said potential rulings stemming from the lawsuit could jeopardize such arrangements in the future.
"This was really only to try and clarify the intent of the Legislature," said Paul Hefner, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, the Democratic lawmaker who authored the bill. Hefner added that the new law would provide a boost for Planned Parenthood in its lawsuit.
"We felt the original legislation had left the door open (for reinterpretation)" said Kathy Kneer, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, which operates 103 clinics throughout the state.
Officials with the California Association of Health Plans, the state's major HMO lobby, and community clinic lobbies said the new legislation was expected to have little or no effect on healthcare delivery in the state.
Kneer said that Planned Parenthood received the contract from Kaiser because the HMO was no longer comfortable dealing with Family Planning Associates Medical Group, whose 18 clinics in California make it the state's largest private abortion provider. A Kaiser spokesman said it refers patients to both groups but Planned Parenthood receives the majority of referrals. He declined to comment about the decision to give Planned Parenthood a contract.
Family Planning Associates is a political lightning rod. Its principal owner, Edward Allred, M.D., is well-known for his ownership of the Los Alamitos (Calif.) racetrack and his contributions of large sums to Republican politicians and conservative causes. He created controversy two decades ago by suggesting abortion could be used as a means of controlling immigration from Mexico. He was not available for comment at deadline.
Hefner denied that Hertzberg took on the legislation from Planned Parenthood as political payback to Allred. "That wouldn't have any impact on our policy agenda," he said.