Planned Parenthood faces renewed probe, Iowa lawsuit

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WASHINGTON – As Congress gears up for a fresh investigation into the practices at Planned Parenthood clinics around the nation, Susan Thayer awaits a court decision on her fraud lawsuit against the nonprofit women’s health-care organization’s Iowa branch.

Thayer’s case, stemming from her more than 17 years as a clinic manager for the organization in Storm Lake, Iowa, claims Planned Parenthood of the Heartland routinely overcharged government programs for birth-control pills and medical procedures. She asserts the activities defrauded government entities to the tune of $28 million in the federal whistleblower lawsuit.

After raising objections to drug-induced abortions being dispensed through online video calls between medical staff and a patient, Thayer was dismissed from her job. She told a congressional hearing in October that she lost her job because of downsizing and rejected accusations that she is merely a disgruntled former employee. She also denied having discussed with her lawyer that she might collect millions of dollars if her whistleblower claim prevails.

In the lawsuit, Thayer alleges the clinic she managed routinely charged Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor and disabled, $35 for a month’s supply of birth-control pills that cost the organization $2.98. She says the clinic regularly received $26.32 for the monthly supply it dispensed. In testifying before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on Oct. 8, Thayer said the clinic also improperly collected $10 from Medicaid recipients for each month’s supply of the pills.

In 2012, a federal district judge dismissed her lawsuit, saying it lacked specific evidence to support the claims Thayer made. But an appeals court sent the case back to the district court for a rehearing, and she refiled her complaint in November 2014.

“We are happy the court dismissed the allegations made by Ms. Thayer with prejudice, recognizing the lack of substance in the complaint,” Jill June, leader of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said in a statement after the district court decision. “We are a trusted health-care provider for thousands of people across four states, and we will continue to stand up to extreme individuals and organizations that attack Planned Parenthood.”

The organization, which said it serves 65,000 patients annually, claimed Thayer’s lawsuit is part of a “pattern of harassment against women’s health care and Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country.”

That theme was reflected in comments from Democrats during the House hearing last month. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) demanded evidence of the alleged fraud from Thayer. She didn’t offer anything beyond her own experiences running the clinic.

“The district court judge dismissed your action because you had no evidence of fraud,” Jeffries said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “You then appealed it to the Eighth Circuit. And they affirmed the decision that you’ve got no evidence of fraud, remanded on a separate ground – good luck.”

Thayer responded: “Well, sir, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court. And it’s now back in district court. We’re waiting on a ruling from them.”

In her opening comments, Thayer recounted how she began working at the Storm Lake clinic in an entry-level position to help women, even though she was opposed to abortion. She was promoted to a management job.

“I spent 17 years learning from the inside out just how Planned Parenthood works,” Thayer said, according to the transcript. “I concluded that no business, certainly no health-care business, should view a woman’s body as a profit center, but that is what Planned Parenthood is all about. They’re more concerned with profits than about the health of women.”

She recounted one incident in 2002 when the remains of a newborn infant were discovered in a trash dump, and investigators sought the clinic’s help in finding the perpetrator. Rather than cooperate, she said Planned Parenthood turned the situation into a “fundraising opportunity” that raised thousands of dollars.

“In 2007, I learned more about the truth of Planned Parenthood when it implemented webcam abortion,” Thayer said. “Here is how this was to work: A woman with a positive pregnancy test would be offered a webcam abortion on the spot so she couldn’t change her mind.”

She said the procedure involved a teleconference using Skype’s free Internet calling service, in which medical staff would consult with the woman and then dispense an abortion-inducing drug through an automated system. She said charges for this service were the same for a surgical abortion.

“Webcam abortion is obviously a big moneymaker for Planned Parenthood,” she said, adding that the organization has touted the procedure as an innovative success that has been expanded in Iowa and in Minnesota. “I expressed my concerns to Planned Parenthood management that webcam abortions were unsafe and possibly illegal.”

Democrats on the panel attacked Thayer over her motives and also sought to discredit the hearing itself as “political theater” designed to rally conservatives and strip the right to choose an abortion from American women.

The four congressional hearings focused on Planned Parenthood’s practices this year “have everything to do with appeasing the most conservative elements of one of the parties during an interparty leadership crisis and a fractious presidential primary,” Michigan Democrat John Conyers said at the start of the Oct. 8 proceeding. He went on to point out that many pressing issues await the committee’s attention, including curbing gun violence, immigration reform and voting rights.

“We should not spend one more minute or one more taxpayer dollar vilifying Planned Parenthood without a speck of evidence to back these claims,” Conyers said. “Planned Parenthood alone serves 2.7 million Americans every year. Abortion procedures make up an incredibly small amount of the services it provides, only 3 percent,” he said, adding that the organization “saves lives” through medical services such as cancer screening.

Another Democrat, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, derided the hearing as a poorly disguised attempt to destroy the organization.

“This investigation of Planned Parenthood is based on false premises, one after another after another,” Cohen said. He joined other critics in faulting GOP leaders for pursuing Planned Parenthood over heavily edited videos in which organization officials discussed selling the organs of aborted fetuses.

Despite Democratic opposition, the Republican leaders in the House put together a special investigative panel to further probe Planned Parenthood’s activities, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee).

“This will be a broad-based – information-gathering – fact-finding mission, to answer questions about how we treat and protect life in this country,” Blackburn said in a statement on the mission of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. It will target practices and procedures of organizations engaged in fetal tissue procurement, federal abortion funding and related issues, she said.

“Constituents, regardless of being anti-abortion or pro-abortion rights, are demanding we get answers to their questions about how we treat and protect life in this country and details of how this practice of selling baby body parts transpires,” Blackburn said this week in an op-ed article published by U.S. News & World Report. “You can be assured that we will follow the law, find the facts and focus on where those facts take us in defense of life.”

Planned Parenthood has appealed to newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to rein in congressional investigators and insure any inquiries are “fair and impartial.”

“We also do not understand the rationale for the creation of the new select committee in the House,” Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Ryan.

“The fact that the members of the select committee announced to date are some of the most vocal opponents of abortion and advocates of defunding Planned Parenthood in the Congress undermines the fairness of this inquiry,” Richards wrote. “Some of these members have already publicly stated that furthering these policy goals is the purpose of their investigation.”

Richards pointed out that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has also been investigating her organization, has said that no wrongdoing had been uncovered in that probe.

“We have nothing to hide, and the facts are on our side,” Richards wrote.