September 17, 2012 — The Virginia Board of Health on Friday voted 13-2 to reverse a previous decision that exempted existing facilities from a state requirement that abortion clinics meet the same building standards as new hospitals, Reuters reports (Kebede, Reuters, 9/14).
The board in June voted 7-4 in favor of the exemption for the 20 clinics already in operation in Virginia (Nolan, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/15). Opponents of the requirements -- part of several regulations being implemented under a new state law -- argued that the new standards could force the existing clinics to close.
In July, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) said the health board's vote was unlawful and refused to certify the regulations (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/10). Cuccinelli said the board had to include the building standards for existing facilities because they were mandated by the new state law.
Last week, he followed up with a letter to the board advising members against grandfathering existing abortion clinics. The letter also warned members that they would be personally responsible for legal fees if a lawsuit arises and they are named in it (Vozzella, Washington Post, 9/14).
The newly approved regulations will be sent to Cuccinelli's office for review. If certified, they will go to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who must approve the rules before authorizing a 60-day comment period. The board is expected to make a final vote on the permanent rules next year.
Brian Gottstein, director of communications for the attorney general, said Cuccinelli's decision on whether to approve the regulations "will be determined solely on a legal basis -- as was the decision on the prior version of the regulations -- not on the basis of whether or not we agree with the policy" (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/15).
Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley said that all of the state's abortion clinics have already been inspected for compliance and none indicated that they intend to close. Eleven were licensed after submitting renovation plans, while corrective action plans for others are pending, she added. Clinics have two years to meet the new requirements, according to the AP/Washington Post (O'Dell, AP/Washington Post, 9/14).
Clinics may appeal to the state health commissioner for a variance from the requirements. The clinics must then prove that they face a unique hardship and that the requested changes would not negatively affect patient safety.
Hundreds of advocates on both sides turned out for Friday's board meeting. Supporters of the regulations said they would protect women's safety, while opponents argued that they single out abortion providers with new construction requirements that do not exist for similar medical facilities.
Tarina Keene, chair of the Coalition to Protect Women's Health, said the board gave in to political pressure, went against its medical expertise, and abandoned its responsibility to protect the health and safety of Virginia women. Ten of the 15 board members were appointed by McDonnell, who, like Cuccinelli, opposes abortion rights (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/15).
Board Chair Bruce Edwards denied that the board's decision was influenced by politics. "We work through all of these issues in a systematic way, a methodical way, and come out with what we feel is the best for these patients," he said (Sherfinski, Washington Times, 9/16).
However, James Edmondson -- one of two board members to vote against the stricter requirements -- said board members may have felt pressured by Cuccinelli's letter (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/15). He also said the General Assembly gave the board mixed messages. "On one hand they say be a regulatory body -- you are independent," he said, adding, "One the other hand, 'Do as we say'" (AP/Washington Post, 9/14).
In a statement, ACLU of Virginia said the regulations "will make abortions more expensive and more difficult to obtain particularly if some clinics are forced to close." It will be difficult or impossible for all of the clinics to make the costly renovations required to meet the new building standards, abortion-rights supporters said (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/15).