COLUMBIA — State taxpayers already paid $17,510 in legal fees in an attempt to fulfill Gov. Henry McMaster's pledge to halt Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, which cover birth control, prenatal care and pelvic exams for poor South Carolinians.
And the price tag for the governor's executive action is only beginning to grow, as the state appeals a court ruling that went against it in August.
An ongoing lawsuit between Planned Parenthood and the state's Department of Health and Human Services — the state's Medicaid agency — could ultimately end up costing taxpayers more money than what Planned Parenthood would otherwise collect from the state under the federal health care program.
That federal lawsuit stemmed from an executive order the governor handed down in July, which singled out Planned Parenthood and attempted to cut off any state funding for the organization's family planning services. That included the state acting as a conduit for federal reimbursements to the organization that runs two of the state's three abortion clinics.
In recent years, state records show Planned Parenthood was reimbursed somewhere between $32,000 and $83,000 under that program, with the cost varying based on how many patients it served. None of the money was paid for abortions.
That means the state's legal fees already equal between 21 percent to 54 percent of the money McMaster is seeking to withhold from Planned Parenthood.
The state is being represented in the federal lawsuit by Jolley Law Group, a firm with offices in Columbia and Hilton Head Island. The Post and Courier obtained the legal invoice from Jolley Group through a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act. But the state health agency redacted parts of the document including how much time the attorneys worked and the amount of money they were paid per hour.
For the state's conservative leaders, the issue is obviously not about the money.
They view it as a moral campaign. The governor and other Republican lawmakers in the Statehouse oppose Planned Parenthood because its clinics offer abortions, though the organization receives no tax money for those procedures.
"Gov. McMaster is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure taxpayer dollars don't directly or indirectly fund abortions," Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman, reiterated Wednesday.
Planned Parenthood's regional spokesperson, Sarah Riddle, said the organization would not comment about the ongoing litigation.
The cost of the lawsuit, however, is being criticized by Democratic leaders in the state Legislature. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, finds it ironic that McMaster would not be concerned with the cost of defending his executive order in court.
The governor's office, he pointed out, routinely vetoes items in the state budget citing fiscal responsibility. He specifically pointed to McMaster's veto this year that temporarily halted money allocated to Children's Trust, a statewide nonprofit that works on preventing child abuse.
"The governor's office seems to have lost its moral compass," Rutherford said.
The legal bills from Jolley Law Group are expected to continue in the coming months, as the state appeals the case to the federal circuit court in Virginia.
The state could be forced to pay Planned Parenthood's legal costs too, if McMaster loses the federal lawsuit. Judges can order the government to pay the other party's litigation costs if they are on the wrong side of the final court decision.
The lawsuit hasn't gone well for the state to this point.
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis came down hard on the state health agency and its attorneys in August when she temporarily blocked McMaster's order from taking effect.
In that order, Lewis wrote that Planned Parenthood is likely to win the case. She also dismissed the state's argument that it could block a health care provider, like Planned Parenthood, from its Medicaid program for any reason.
Even more, Lewis cast aside McMaster's argument that the state was somehow funding abortions.
Planned Parenthood's "inclusion in South Carolina's Medicaid program results in neither the direct nor indirect use of state funds to pay for abortions," she wrote.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to decide whether they will hear the case.