July 6, 2011 — Abortion-rights proponents in Kansas are concerned that new state regulations could give the Kansas Department of Health and Environment unrestricted access to patient medical records, which could endanger the privacy of women who obtain abortion services, the AP/Washington Post reports.
The regulations are part of a new state law that requires abortion clinics to undergo inspections and obtain licenses (AP/Washington Post, 7/5). On Friday, U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia issued a temporary injunction against the law until a trial is held in a lawsuit filed by two of the state's abortion providers. The law, which would have taken effect July 1, authorizes the health department to write standards for buildings and equipment, issue annual licenses for abortion clinics, fine clinics for non-compliance and go to court to close clinics. The standards include stipulations that rooms and closets meet minimum size requirements, that rooms be kept at certain temperatures and that several types of drugs and supplies be kept on hand. Two of the state's three abortion clinics were denied licenses (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/5).
One of the regulations states that "all records shall be available at the facility for inspection" by the health department secretary or staff. Abortion-rights supporters said giving this access to state officials will allow them to review highly personal information. The law requires that medical records be kept confidential, and a state statute makes it a misdemeanor for health department employees to disclose data publicly. However, abortion-rights advocates are skeptical of Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) administration because he is a strong opponent of abortion rights.
Bonnie Scott Jones, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the law is "totally unjustified and an invasion of patient privacy." Miranda Myrick, a health department spokesperson, said, "When surveyors are inspecting facilities, medical records do not leave the facilities," adding that federal law also applies.
Proponents of the law say the measures will protect patients from substandard care, even though Murguia said the state has not yet provided any evidence that the rules are "rationally related" to improving care.
Julie Burkhart, founder of the political action committee Trust Women, said the law and other abortion restrictions in the state are of "great concern." She added, "Based on history, there has not been a lot of integrity put forth regarding patients' private medical records." In 2003, then-Attorney General Phill Kline (R) began investigating abortion clinics and obtained access to patient information. Kline remains wrapped up in ethics investigations about how he handled the records, which were discussed publicly, including in national media outlets (AP/Washington Post, 7/5).