Planned Parenthood settles Idaho lawsuit that banned telemedicine for abortion-inducing medication

By Heather Mack
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The state of Idaho will no longer ban women from using telemedicine to receive abortion-inducing medication, following the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands had filed a federal lawsuit in December 2015 to overturn two Idaho telemedicine laws that contained restrictions to women seeking abortions, claiming that legalizing telemedicine except in such cases was unconstitutional.

“Women in Idaho deserve the right to have access to the safest, highest quality health care—these misguided laws do just the opposite by creating unnecessary hurdles to safe and legal abortion that are not grounded in science, but instead rooted in politics,” Chris Charbonneau, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands stated at the time of the filing. “While we agree with the benefits of telehealth outlined in the Telehealth Access Act, we believe this bill to be an affront to women and just bad public health policy.” 

The first, House Bill 154, required a doctor to be present when administering the abortion-inducing medication, while the second – the Idaho Telehealth Access Act – was a larger telemedicine bill to expand a variety of services and contained the line: “No drug may be prescribed through telehealth services for the purpose of causing an abortion.” It was the only such restrictive language in the entire bill, which outlined acceptable telemedicine practice regarding prescriptions, diagnoses, consultation and other services across Idaho.

“There is no medical justification for carving out this one exclusion for prescribing medicine to patients in Idaho,” Hannah Brass Greer, Idaho Legislative Director and Public Affairs Manager for Planned Parenthood said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed. “The Constitution does not allow the legislature to pass laws that burden women’s access to abortion when those laws do not advance the health and safety of women.”

Most of Idaho is considered rural, and there are no clinics that provide abortion services in 95 percent of counties across Idaho – where 70 percent of Idaho women live, according to an article in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Along with 36 other states, Idaho requires a licensed physician to be the only one to prescribe abortion medication.

Telemedicine isn’t an option for many women across American who are seeking abortion-inducing medication. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization focused on reproductive health rights, 19 states require clinicians providing abortion-inducing medication be physically present during the procedure, effectively prohibiting the use of telemedicine to prescribe the medication.

But Planned Parenthood won a similar lawsuit in Iowa in 2015 when the state Supreme Court ruled a 2013 rule preventing doctors from administering abortion-inducing medication via telehealth was unconstitutional.

In the Idaho settlement, the state Legislature has until the end of 2017 to remove the one-line ban from the Telehealth Access Act law and repeal the law requiring the physical presence of doctors in the room when prescribing the abortion-inducing medication, the Idaho Statesman reports. If not, US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill will declare the laws unconstitutional and unenforceable. 

"Based on the stipulated facts, and the entire record herein, the Court hereby finds that the challenged laws ... provide few, if any, health benefits from women," Winmill wrote. "And that these benefits, if any, are outweighed by the burden these laws impose on access to abortion."