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A former state health commissioner spoke about building standards at abortion facilities.
The Virginian-Pilot | File January
Dr. Karen Remley, former state health commissioner, testified at a public hearing on regulations for abortion facilities held Thursday in Richmond. She said “rigidity in interpretation will potentially decrease access to safe and quality care.”
Thursday, March 7, 2013
RICHMOND — Virginia’s former health commissioner urged a state regulatory board Thursday to allow flexibility in applying new building standards to abortion facilities, warning that strict implementation could compromise patient care.
Dr. Karen Remley resigned as the state’s health commissioner in October because of the controversial regulations, which will require abortion facilities to meet the same design and construction standards as those for new hospitals. A month before Remley’s resignation, the Virginia Board of Health voted to reverse an earlier decision that would have exempted existing clinics from the new building requirements.
Remley testified Thursday in the first of two public hearings that will be held before the board decides on making the regulations permanent. Remley said the state should not be rigid in enforcing the construction standards for existing facilities, which may have to undergo costly renovations to comply with the requirements.
“For all health care facilities, including abortion facilities, rigidity in interpretation will potentially decrease access to safe and quality care,” Remley said. “I suggest a careful review of these guidelines with implementation of only those that are critical for health and safety for existing facilities, and appropriate application of the remainder when significant renovation and new building occurs.”
The board of health is scheduled to take a final vote on the regulations at its April 12 meeting. If the board approves the regulations, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration will conduct a final review before implementing them.
The board was not present for Thursday’s hearing. Erik Bodin , director of state health department’s office of licensure and certification, was the hearing officer.
The General Assembly in 2011 passed legislation requiring the state to classify facilities that perform at least five first-trimester abortions a month as hospitals and to impose new licensing and inspection requirements on providers.
The board of health voted last June to exempt existing facilities from the new building standards. But Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office would not certify the regulations with the exemption, asserting that the board exceeded its authority and ran afoul of the 2011 law by exempting existing clinics from the construction standards.
The board voted in September to strip the exemption from the regulations and McDonnell signed off on the revised version in late December. Thursday’s hearing in Henrico County was part of a 60-day public comment period that ends March 29. A second hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Alexandria.
Abortion rights supporters argued again Thursday that the regulations are politically motivated and would limit access to safe abortions and other services provided at those facilities.
Alena Yarmosky of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said the regulations “are being pushed through without consideration of the advice of medical experts for evidence of their real impact on women’s health and safety.”
“The care being provided by our 20 first-trimester abortion providers is safe and effective,” Yarmosky said. “All 20 have been inspected and given unconditional licenses.”
The regulations allow abortion facilities to request a temporary variance to a particular requirement that “poses an impractical hardship unique to the abortion facility,” as long as the variance “would not endanger the safety or well-being of patients.” The state health commissioner would decide whether to grant the variance.
Chris Freund of The Family Foundation of Virginia , an organization that pushed for the new regulations, said health department inspections turned up “widespread violations” that undercut assertions made by abortion rights supporters.
“If it wasn’t for the abortion center health and safety standards adopted by this board, these abortion centers would be continuing to operate with blood-splattered equipment and unsterilized facilities,” Freund said.
Remley told the board last fall that the deficiencies cited in initial inspections of abortion facilities were no different than those the health department finds in other licensed medical facilities.
Diane Reynolds voiced support for the regulations, saying abortion clinics have operated for too long without them.
“When women are having outpatient surgical procedures, they should have proper care,” said Reynolds, who lives near Charlottesville. “They should be safe.”
State Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk , a candidate for lieutenant governor, testified that the regulations will “take us back to the pre-Roe vs. Wade days.”
“That is not where Virginia needs to go,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist. “It is time that our legislators and policy-makers and our attorney general start listening to the scientific data, to evidence-based medicine, and not to ignore it. It is time that they listen to experienced health care providers. And most importantly, it is time for them to listen to women and to keep the government out of their lives.”
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