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Federal Judge Allows Mo. Clinic To Keep Abortion License While Considering Lawsuit

Federal Judge Allows Mo. Clinic To Keep Abortion License While Considering Lawsuit

December 3, 2015 — A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services from revoking a Planned Parenthood clinic's license to offer abortion care while a lawsuit over the matter continues, the AP/San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey's decision blocks DHHS from revoking the Columbia, Mo., clinic's license through the next hearing on Dec. 29, although the clinic is not permitted to provide abortion services. Currently, a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis is the state's only clinic that provides abortions (Ballentine, AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 12/2).

Background

Under state law, abortion clinics are required to meet ambulatory surgical center requirements. To meet those requirements, physicians who provide surgical abortions must have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital.

In 2014, University of Missouri Health Care granted "refer and follow" privileges to Colleen McNicholas, a physician who began providing medication abortions at the Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic on Aug. 3.

In August, conservative state senators and the health department director in Missouri debated at a hearing whether the Columbia clinic met state licensing requirements when it received its license in July. During the hearing, state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R) -- chair of the Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as an interim committee investigating Planned Parenthood -- said the clinic failed to meet the ambulatory surgical center standards because the clinic's abortion provider does not have admitting privileges. However, Gail Vasterling, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the standard does not apply because the clinic only provides medication abortions, not surgical abortions. Physicians at the clinic or the clinic itself would need to obtain admitting privilege requirements only if the clinic started to offer surgical abortions.

Following a unanimous vote by a committee of executive staff, MU Health Care announced that it would cease refer and follow privileges, which permit physicians to provide medication abortions, beginning Dec. 1. Planned Parenthood in September said it would take legal action against MU for its decision to discontinue the privileges.

The Columbia clinic on Nov. 23 stopped offering abortion care in anticipation of McNicholas losing her privileges. McNicholas currently is seeking to obtain other privileges at MU Health Care (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/1).

Details of Ruling

In the latest ruling, Laughrey noted that Missouri usually allows other health care centers with similar licensing requirements the chance to address any issues before their licenses are revoked. According to Laughrey, the effort to revoke the clinic's license "may be the result of animus toward the center and the work it performs there."

Laughrey also noted that the clinic currently is not offering abortion care, concluding that "[n]either patient nor public welfare is at risk by plaintiff maintaining its license." According to the AP/Union-Tribune, state Solicitor General James Layton had attempted to use a similar argument in favor of immediately revoking the clinic's license, stating that pulling the clinic's license would not end abortion care at the clinic since the clinic already stopped providing such services. But Melissa Cohen, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, said even though the clinic currently does not offer abortion care, requiring the clinic to reapply for a license would be costly.

Meanwhile, Laura McQuade, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, praised the ruling and expressed confidence that the organization would prevail in court (AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 12/2).