Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday directed state officials to begin looking for money to keep the Medicaid Women's Health Program, even if the Obama administration revokes federal funding amid a fight over clinics affiliated with abortion providers.
"We'll find the money. The state is committed to this program," Perry told reporters, shortly before he issued a letter directing Thomas Suehs, head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, to work with legislative leaders and identify money to keep the program going if federal funds are halted.
But pulling that off will be no mean feat: The program costs about $40 million, and the federal government currently covers 90 percent of that.
The health program provides care to about 130,000 low-income women statewide. It had been expected to close next week, when Texas begins enforcing a law passed last summer that bars state funding from clinics affiliated with abortion providers. The Obama administration has said it will stop funding the program because federal law requires women to be able to choose any qualified clinic.
Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier countered that Texas has the right under federal law to determine qualified providers in the program.
The law is part of a long-running campaign by conservatives in the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature to shut down abortion providers by imposing strenuous regulations and cutting off state and federal funds for their non-abortion services. Perry and Republican state lawmakers specifically don't want Planned Parenthood clinics, which treat 40 percent of the program's patients, to get any state funding, even when that money is not spent on abortions.
That has created a legal standoff, with federal and state officials accusing each other of political extremism while poor women will be left without necessary health care. The Women's Health Program serves women ages 18-44 earning less than $20,000 a year or less than $41,000 for a family of four.
Perry did not specify where the funding for the Women's Health Program might be found.
"We've got a multibillion-dollar budget, so we've got the ability to be flexible on where the money comes from," he said after an event at Texas Republican Party headquarters.
His letter to Suehs noted officials have been discussing the possibility of making up lost federal funding in the Women's Health Program for weeks.
The state Legislature is out of session and does not meet again until next year, but Frazier said the governor has the authority to redistribute available funds as he sees fit -- and would not need to convene a special session.
Perry said he's anxious to save the program after the Legislature last year cut funding for 160,000 women enrolled in it. In total, lawmakers slashed $83 million in funding for women's health programs. It was not immediately clear what other areas would have to be scaled back to make funds available for the governor to keep his promise.
The Texas Democratic Party blasted Perry for removing funding from other parts of the state budget to save the program.
"Instead of diverting resources from already strained state services Perry should own up to his mistake," party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said in a statement.
State law already forbids taxpayer money from going to organizations that provide abortions, so groups such as Planned Parenthood have established legally distinct corporations to separate family planning and women's health providers from clinics that perform abortions.
The law about to be enacted goes a step further to make any affiliation between a clinic and an abortion provider grounds for cutting off funding. That can mean sharing a name, employee or board member, even if the two clinics are legally and financially separate. Lawmakers last year said their goal was to cut off all state funding for Planned Parenthood, not to leave poor women without health care.
"Those people that are out there trying to say, 'Oh they're going to kill this program' are just dead wrong," Perry said of the Women's Health Program on Thursday. He said the Obama administration is "trying to support an organization that supports them. ... But Texans don't want Planned Parenthood, a known abortion provider, to be involved in this."
In a letter to President Barack Obama, Perry accused the administration of trying to violate states' rights "by mandating which health providers the state of Texas must use."
"I will not allow these services to be denied by your administration's political agenda and opposition to enacted Texas law that prohibits abortion providers and their affiliates from receiving taxpayer dollars," the letter said.
Associated Press writers Chris Tomlinson in Austin and Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this story.