The courtroom fight between Planned Parenthood and the state of Missouri continued Wednesday as a St. Louis judge said he would weigh whether to grant a preliminary injunction allowing the state’s sole abortion provider to remain open despite its expired license.
The clinic’s license lapsed Friday, but a temporary restraining order issued by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer has kept the provider’s doors open to patients seeking abortions.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has refused to issue the clinic another license until it interviews doctors `who have worked at the clinic located in the city’s Central West End. A review of medical records during an annual inspection March led the state to open an investigation in April over what it called “grave concerns.”
Five of the seven physicians have declined to be interviewed. Planned Parenthood has said it cannot compel the doctors to comply with DHSS’s investigation because they are not employees, but rather contracted through teaching hospitals and medical schools. Stelzer ruled Tuesday that testimony from four of the physicians was irrelevant to what the court was trying to decide.
In arguments Wednesday, Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, representing the DHSS, said the investigation could yield “up to 30 deficiencies” in patient care, but the interviews were needed for the department to complete its investigation. Some of the findings that raised concern are listed in the state’s court documents, but are redacted to the public to protect patient privacy.
Sauer asked Stelzer to throw the case out of civil court. The appropriate path forward for Planned Parenthood, he argued, was to file an appeal with the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC), where appointed judges handle disputes over decisions made by state agencies.
Jamie Boyer, Planned Parenthood’s lead attorney, said even if the clinic were to take the matter to AHC, it didn’t know “what in the world” it would be appealing. DHSS has not disclosed the scope of its investigation, nor has it given the clinic a list of findings it could contest.
Boyer asked Stelzer to find the state regulation that covers licensing of abortion providers invalid because it exceeds the state’s general law on licensing.
She noted that Missouri law proscribes a step-by-step method for the agency to enforce licensure. First, the agency issues a statement of deficiencies. Then, the facility seeking a license can submit up to two corrective plans. If the state takes issue with both corrective plans, it can limit patient admissions. The last step would be to suspend operations and revoke or deny a license.
When the state let the license lapse, the clinic had submitted its second corrective action plan. Sauer has said in court that but for the interviews, the state would probably approve the plan.
“We are not saying we don’t have to cooperate with investigations,” Boyer said. “...What are we saying is that the department has to stay within the statutory authority.”
Unlike previous rulings, Stelzer did not indicate in court when he would make a decision.