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Planned Parenthood operates a clinic in West Ashley. It is one of two Planned Parenthood clinics in South Carolina that offer abortions. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Federal judges in Richmond, Va., have upheld a lower court's preliminary injunction prohibiting Gov. Henry McMaster from excluding Planned Parenthood clinics from the state's Medicaid provider network. 

Federal law allows Medicaid beneficiaries the right to choose which provider they want to use, assuming the provider participates in the Medicaid program.

In July 2018, the S.C. Medicaid agency terminated provider agreements for two Planned Parenthood clinics — one in Columbia and one in Charleston. Both clinics offer abortions.

One month later, a federal district judge in Columbia granted Planned Parenthood a preliminary injunction, allowing it to continue to provide care to Medicaid patients and qualify for reimbursement.

On Tuesday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's injunction.

The Medicaid agency "did not contend that PPSAT (Planned Parenthood South Atlantic) was providing subpar service to its Medicaid patients, or to any other patients," the federal Appeals Court wrote in its opinion. "Instead, PPSAT was terminated solely because it performed abortions outside of the Medicaid program."

With very few exceptions, the Medicaid program does not pay for abortions. Medicaid patients may use Planned Parenthood for family planning and birth control, among other services. 

McMaster wanted "to prevent the state from indirectly subsidizing abortion services," the court wrote. But federal law, the judges wrote, clearly allows Medicaid beneficiaries the freedom of choice.

A spokesman for McMaster's office said the governor intends to "fight this lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes to make sure South Carolina taxpayer dollars no longer subsidize abortion clinics."

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Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic called Tuesday's ruling "a major win" for patients. 

"Patients in South Carolina are already suffering from a chronic shortage of health care providers, especially those that will accept patients who use Medicaid as their insurance," the group said in a press release. "For 40 years, Planned Parenthood has been a vital health care safety net for those patients in South Carolina."

One other clinic in Greenville offers women abortions in South Carolina. The Greenville Women's Clinic is not involved in the federal lawsuit. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.