COLUMBIA — Planned Parenthood has become a frequent target of the Republican gubernatorial candidates bickering over who opposes abortion the most. 

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant says his plan ensures no tax money would go to Planned Parenthood. Gov. Henry McMaster argues he's already defunded it through an executive order. Catherine Templeton says when she was the state's public health director, she simply didn't send any money to the abortion provider. John Warren contends McMaster and Templeton didn't do enough to oust legislators who fund Planned Parenthood. 

Actually, the state budget doesn't direct any money to Planned Parenthood, for abortions or anything else. Neither does the state public health agency — before, during or after Templeton ran it. And McMaster's order hasn't stopped any funding yet. 

The candidates are arguing over a tiny fraction of what the state's Medicaid agency and the state health plan spends annually on family planning services.

Last fiscal year, Planned Parenthood's South Carolina clinics received a combined $90,000 in reimbursements out of the $44 million that the insurance plans spent on services such as birth control, annual exams, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, according to a review by the state's Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. 

"Planned Parenthood has been a favorite whipping boy of many politicians in our state ... as though we get a great big bucket of money," said Vicki Ringer, regional spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which operates in Columbia and Charleston. "Everything about this is political."

On Friday, dozens of Planned Parenthood supporters attended a public hearing to oppose the state's request to federal health officials that would allow South Carolina to bar funding to the controversial group. The request stems from McMaster's executive order.

"That is an abomination, and we need to get it out of South Carolina," McMaster said at last week's debate at Clemson University, co-sponsored by The Post and Courier and SCETV. 

But the governor can't simply order the state's Medicaid agency to take Planned Parenthood off its provider roll. That requires federal permission. The agency's proposal is still in the public comment phase and likely won't be sent to the federal government until July — after this month's primaries. A third and final hearing is scheduled Monday in Charleston.

That request never mentions the words "abortion" or "Planned Parenthood." Instead, it asks to exclude any medical provider that can't "treat the entire scope" of pre-conception care, including heart disease, depression and substance abuse. Planned Parenthood doesn't. Neither do public county health clinics, but the request seeks an exemption for them.

The state chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes the request. Rather than providing women with a more focused network of prenatal providers, as the request claims, it's limiting where women can receive care in a state where there's already a shortage of OB-GYN providers, Judy Burgis, representing the college's South Carolina chapter, said at the meeting.

The order to defund Planned Parenthood "sounds good in a campaign ad, but it affects real people's lives," said Julie Edwards of Williston, adding she's tired of Medicaid patients being used as political pawns. 

Bryant, a former senator, contends McMaster's order doesn't move fast enough. The state shouldn't wait on permission. Legislators can "defund" Planned Parenthood now by rejecting the $34 million the federal government sends South Carolina for family planning services for Medicaid patients — and replacing it with state money, he said. He wants McMaster to veto the budget if they don't.

"The budget before this state needs to defund any taxpayer dollars going to Planned Parenthood. I don't care if it's for a vitamin C," he said at the Clemson debate.

Templeton said she didn't need federal permission.    

"When I was the public health director of the state of South Carolina, I didn't send any money to Planned Parenthood," Templeton said. "I didn't ask anybody's permission for it. We didn't send it. So, we didn't have to worry about the Legislature."

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control's only interaction with Planned Parenthood is through regulating and inspecting the clinics. However, while it sends no money, it does collect fees and fines from the organization to cover those administrative costs, according to the fiscal office's reports in 2015 and earlier this year. 

Collections rose dramatically after Templeton left the agency in January 2015. 

Between July 2011 and July 2015, the agency collected an average of less than $900 a year annually from Planned Parenthood in fees, but not a single penalty. Payments rose to $20,525 — which included $19,500 in penalties — for 2015-16 as GOP lawmakers demanded more oversight. They dropped back down last fiscal year to $1,175, according to the fiscal review.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.