Planned Parenthood, the women's healthcare group under attack recently by U.S. anti-abortion activists, hit back on Wednesday, criticizing some states for trying to block funding for the organization.
Shortly before making a speech at Georgetown University, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told reporters that a letter sent on Tuesday to state Medicaid agencies makes clear that efforts to defund her group are illegal.
Federal Medicaid Director Vikki Wachino sent the letter to Medicaid agencies in all 50 U.S. states, warning them against cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood.
Wachino's letter did not name Planned Parenthood directly, but said state Medicaid funds for healthcare providers may only be restricted if the provider cannot perform covered medical services or bill for services appropriately.
It added that states may not defund family planning providers solely because they offer a "full range" of legal gynecological and obstetric care, including abortions.
The letter made it "abundantly clear that recent efforts to prevent patients who rely on Medicaid from coming to Planned Parenthood or other providers for essential preventative services are illegal," Richards said on a conference call.
Medicaid is a U.S. government healthcare program for the poor of all ages; Medicare is for the elderly and disabled.
Funding for Planned Parenthood has been under fire since mid-2015. That was when anti-abortion activists began releasing covertly filmed videos purporting to show officials from the group trying to negotiate prices for aborted fetal tissue.
Under federal law, donated human fetal tissue may be used for research, but profiting from its sale is prohibited.
Planned Parenthood denied the accusations and called the probe politically motivated.
Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for the Department of Health & Human Services, said the letter responded to "recent actions by some states to terminate agreements with providers and restrict individuals from receiving their care."
Planned Parenthood officials said at least 24 states have moved to restrict access to care at the group's clinics through Medicaid and other public funding programs since mid-2015.
Federal officials had previously contacted individual states to warn about restricting beneficiaries' access to care, though this was the first time they reached out to them all collectively.
Two weeks ago, California law enforcement agents raided the home of the head of the anti-abortion group that produced the videos and seized computers and video footage.
(Reporting by Megan Cassella; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alan Crosby)