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Judge Blocks Texas Plan To Cut Planned Parenthood Medicaid Funds

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Austin issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday halting Texas’ plan to cut Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood, saying the state did not present evidence of a program violation that would warrant termination.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said state health officials “likely acted to disenroll qualified health care providers from Medicaid without cause.” He said the preliminary injunction will preserve the court’s ability to render a meaningful decision on the case’s merits.

“Such action would deprive Medicaid patients of their statutory right to obtain health care from their chosen qualified provider,” wrote the judge who was appointed by Republican former President George H.W. Bush.

The reproductive healthcare group has said the threatened funding cut, by terminating Planned Parenthood’s enrollment in the state-funded healthcare system for the poor, could affect nearly 11,000 patients across Texas as they try to access services such as HIV and cancer screenings.

Texas and several other Republican-controlled states have pushed to cut the organization’s funding since an anti-abortion group released videos it said showed Planned Parenthood officials negotiating prices for fetal tissue collected from abortions.

Texas investigated Planned Parenthood over the videos and a grand jury last January cleared it of any wrongdoing. The grand jury indicted two anti-abortion activists who made the videos for document fraud but the charges were dismissed.

The state took no further criminal action against Planned Parenthood after that but has repeated its accusations that the abortion provider may have violated state law.

Planned Parenthood has denied any wrongdoing and sued the anti-abortion activists who made the videos.

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office would appeal.

“Today’s decision is disappointing and flies in the face of basic human decency,” he said in a statement.

In fiscal 2015, Planned Parenthood affiliates across Texas received about $4.2 million in Medicaid funding, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission said. Planned Parenthood said the amount for 2016 was estimated at around $3 million.

None of the money that the group received went for abortions, plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Texas and the Medicaid defunding plan have said.

Planned Parenthood has 34 health centers in Texas, serving more than 120,000 patients, 11,000 of whom are Medicaid patients, it said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Grant McCool and James Dalgleish)

IMAGE: Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is seen in Austin, Texas, U.S. on June 27, 2016.   REUTERS/Ilana Panich-Linsman/File Photo

In A Nod To The Energy Industry, Pruitt Says EPA Can Also Be Pro-Jobs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that America need not choose between jobs and the environment, in a nod to the energy industry, as the White House prepares executive orders that could come as soon as this week to roll back Obama-era regulation.

“I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment,” Scott Pruitt said in his first address to staff. “We don’t have to choose between the two.”

Critics of the agency have complained that regulations ushered in by former Democratic President Barack Obama have killed thousands of energy jobs by restricting carbon emissions and limiting areas open to coal mining and oil drilling.

Democrats, environmental advocates, and many of the EPA’s current and former staff worry President Donald Trump’s appointment of Pruitt signals a reversal in America’s progress toward cleaner air and water and fighting global climate change.

Both Trump and Pruitt have expressed doubts about climate change, and Trump vowed during his 2016 presidential campaign to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight it. The Republican president has promised to slash environmental rules to help the drilling and mining industries, but without hurting air and water quality.

Pruitt sued the agency he now leads more than a dozen times while attorney general of Oklahoma to stop federal rules. He did not mention climate change in his 12-minute speech at the EPA’s headquarters in Washington.

He struck a conciliatory tone in the address, saying he would “listen, learn, and lead” and that he valued the contributions of career staff.

Trump is expected to sign executive orders aimed at reshaping environmental policy as early as this week. Those orders would lift a ban on coal mining leases on federal lands and ease greenhouse gas emissions curbs on electric utilities, according to a report by the Washington Post.

They would also require changes to Obama’s Waters of the United States rule that details which waterways fall under federal protection, the report said.

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Washington Post story.

Pruitt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last week after contentious hearings that focused on his record as the top prosecutor of the oil- and gas-producing state of Oklahoma.

Democrats had sought to delay Pruitt’s confirmation over questions about his ties to the oil industry. Some 800 former EPA staff also signed a letter urging senators to reject him, and about 30 current EPA staff joined a protest set up in Chicago by the Sierra Club environmental group.

In Oklahoma, a state judge ruled last week that Pruitt would have to turn over emails between his office and energy companies by Tuesday after a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, sued for their release.

The judge will review and perhaps hold back some of the emails before releasing them, a court clerk said.

Nicole Cantello, a representative of the union that represents EPA workers, said that despite Pruitt’s record, she was hoping for the best.

“One would hope that the administrator would learn about what we do and would then not treat as lightly the EPA’s mission and accomplishments, and what it is required to do under the statutes,” she said.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said it looked forward to working with Pruitt, the administration and Congress “on policies that will keep energy affordable, create jobs, and strengthen our economy.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt is sworn in by Justice Samuel Alito at the Executive Office in Washington, U.S., February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill Defunding Planned Parenthood

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have blocked funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions and other health services.

The bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature would have barred the state from providing funds to clinics that perform abortions not covered by Medicaid, the federal healthcare program for the poor.

McAuliffe, a Democrat, said the measure would harm thousands of Virginians who relied on Planned Parenthood healthcare services and programs. He vetoed a similar measure last year.

“Attempts to restrict women’s access to health care will impede the goal of making Virginia the best place to live, work, and run a business,” he said in a statement.

Advocates for the law had said it would underpin organizations that provide the widest range of services.

Planned Parenthood draws the ire of many Republicans because it provides abortions. Republican President Donald Trump has pledged to defund the organization.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by James Dalgleish)

IMAGE: Democratic nominee for Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe stands onstage during a campaign rally in Dale City, Virginia, October 27, 2013.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Trump Issues First Public Condemnation Of Anti-Semitic Incidents

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his first public condemnation of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States on Tuesday after a new spate of bomb threats to Jewish community centers around the country and vandalism in a Jewish cemetery.

Several of the centers were evacuated for a time on Monday after receiving the threats, the JCC Association of North America said, and another center was evacuated on Tuesday morning in San Diego, California, according to police.

Also, vandals toppled about 170 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, over the weekend.

“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump told reporters.

He was speaking at the end of a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which Trump said showed “why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms.”

The comments marked a change for Trump, who had not explicitly and publicly condemned the threats against Jews when asked last week. Instead, he spoke more generally about his hopes of making the nation less “divided.”

The president reacted with anger at a news conference last week when a journalist from a Jewish magazine asked how his government planned to “take care” of a rise in threats.

Trump berated the reporter for asking a “very insulting” question, appearing to believe the reporter was accusing him of being anti-Semitic.

“Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” the president said, adding that he was also the least racist person. Trump has often noted that one of his daughters is a convert to Judaism, he has Jewish grandchildren and he employs many Jews in his business.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a close adviser to her father who practices Orthodox Judaism, responded to the latest threats in a message on her Twitter account on Monday evening.

“America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance,” she said. “We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers.”

On Tuesday, Trump again declined to answer a question about what action he would take to address the threats to Jewish organizations. Sean Spicer, a White House spokesman, said later that Trump would respond through “deed and action” over the coming months and years.

‘BAND-AID’

Trump’s derogatory campaign rhetoric against Muslims and Mexican immigrants won enthusiastic backing from prominent white supremacists who embrace anti-Jewish, anti-black, and anti-Muslim ideologies. It also drew greater media attention to fringe extremist groups.

Trump has disavowed their support. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is the former publisher of Breitbart, a news website popular among right-wing extremist groups.

The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, which has criticized the Trump administration repeatedly over anti-Semitism, said his comments were too little too late.

“The president’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration,” Steven Goldstein, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

Spicer rejected the characterization.

“I wish that they had praised the president for his leadership in this area,” he told reporters when asked about Goldstein’s comment. “Hopefully as time goes by they’ll recognize his commitment to civil rights.”

Jewish groups criticized the White House for omitting any mention of Jews in its statement marking Holocaust Memorial Day last month. The White House said the omission was deliberate since the Nazis also killed people who were not Jews, if in smaller numbers. The stated goal of the Nazis was the extermination of Jews.

One day after speaking at a security summit in Munich, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spent Sunday morning walking through the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany with a camp survivor.

Over the course of Presidents’ Day on Monday, bomb threats were sent to 11 Jewish community centers, including ones in the Houston, Chicago, and Milwaukee areas, according to the JCC association. They were found to be hoaxes, as was another threat that forced the evacuation of a center in San Diego on Tuesday morning, according to police.

No arrests were made. The FBI has said it is investigating recent threats as “possible civil rights violations.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim human rights group, has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone behind the threats, saying Muslims felt a duty to support any targeted minority group.

The incidents on Monday followed three waves of bomb threats so far this year. In all, at least 69 incidents at 54 Jewish community centers in 27 states and one Canadian province have been reported, according to the JCC association.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Tom Gannam in St. Louis and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Frances Kerry and Jeffrey Benkoe)

IMAGE: Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, U.S. February 21, 2017.  REUTERS/Tom Gannam