The opening salvo in what will likely be the 2016 war over Planned Parenthood funding in Idaho hasn't been fired yet, but the muskets are being loaded. Some Idaho lawmakers began battle preparations as early as July.
"We're getting many inquiries relating to this today," wrote Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, responding July 21 to a flurry of requests from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the Idaho Legislature.
The requests triggered a string of emails and phone calls involving at least 27 members of the Idaho House and Senate. They came in the wake of a series of deceptively edited "sting" videos from anti-abortion activists purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal tissue.
The controversy gained national traction as some far-right Republicans called for the outright defunding of Planned Parenthood. Shortly thereafter, a number of Idaho legislators and representatives from Otter's office wanted to know how many Idaho tax dollars had been put toward abortions—particularly those funded by Medicaid. More than a few of the inquirers didn't want to limit their funding questions to abortions. They wanted to elevate the debate to include all Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood.
"Does DHW [Department of Health and Welfare] still provide funding to Planned Parenthood?" asked Jared Tatro, principal budget and policy analyst for the Idaho Legislature, in a July 21 email blast to several DHW executives.
Officials with DHW reminded Tatro that Idaho Medicaid funds health services for some Idaho low-income men and women, but 70 percent comes from federal dollars for most health care services and 90 percent for family planning.
Tatro drilled further in his DHW request, saying legislators needed to know how many Idaho tax dollars were funding abortions.
"You asked earlier what the reason for this request was. It does have to do with the selling of aborted baby body parts," wrote Tatro in a follow up email to DHW officials.
Tatro was informed that between 2012 and 2014, only two abortions funded by Medicaid were performed by Planned Parenthood in Idaho. The state's portion amounted to a total of $108.
Tatro was also reminded Idaho Medicaid dollars can only be used to pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest or if the mother's life is at risk.
DHW Director Dick Armstrong sent a letter on Sept. 30 to all Idaho legislators, offering a synopsis of his department's interactions with Planned Parenthood concerning Medicaid. He told them most Planned Parenthood visits included wellness checks, blood tests, immunizations, pregnancy tests, contraception and ultrasounds. Armstrong said Idaho's share of Medicaid funding in 2012-2014 totaled $79,693 and reiterated only $108 in state funds helped pay for two abortions performed by Planned Parenthood.
"Planned Parenthood is a health care provider to 2.7 million people across the nation. One in five women come into our health centers during their lifetime," said Hannah Brass Greer, Idaho legislative director and public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. "But we're still fighting back against those videos."
The videos, from a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress, implied that employees of Planned Parenthood were trafficking fetal tissue, but there has been no evidence of any such activity. During her marathon Sept. 29 appearance before a U.S. congressional hearing, Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards called the videos "fraudulent," "offensive" and "categorically untrue."
"We know a bit more about the Center for Medical Progress, beginning with the fact that it's not a medical organization. They're three anti-abortion activists. Plus, they won't release any of their source videos. They're alleging we did something illegal, but that's simply not true," Greer told Boise Weekly. "But it's important to note that they released those videos just as we started to see presidential politics heat up."
Therein lies the real issue: It's all about politics.
"I fully expect a significant political push at the Idaho Statehouse in 2016," Greer added.
Idaho House Reps. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, told the Twin Falls Times-News proposed bills targeting Planned Parenthood were already in the works for the 2016 session. Both pointed to the videos.
"I personally found the national videos to be abhorrent," said Hartgen.
"Legislators are concerned. Legislators are upset, and they're going to demand action on this issue in the 2016 session," echoed Crane.
Should the anti-Planned Parenthood push come to pass, Greer will be one of the busiest people at the Idaho Statehouse come January.
"This will be my 10th session; we see attacks all the time," said Greer. "They're usually attacks on services, but this is the first time that we're expecting specific attacks against Planned Parenthood."
Otter said in mid-August he had little desire to investigate Planned Parenthood in Idaho, regardless of the controversial videos. In an Aug. 6 letter to legislators, Otter wrote there was no evidence Planned Parenthood violated any law. However, Otter wrote he was under the impression there were troubling "actions" from Planned Parenthood in other parts of the United States.
"Their actions are shocking and deeply troubling," wrote Otter. "I have challenged Idaho's Planned Parenthood officials to reassure Idahoans that such activities have not occurred here."
Greer said she expects the controversy to "amplify the political noise in 2016."
"But voters usually see right through this," she said. "This is political grandstanding. In the meantime, we're going to do what we always do: talk to the public, setting the record straight."