RICHMOND, Va. — Falls Church Healthcare Center has filed the first lawsuit challenging Virginia’s new abortion clinic regulations, which require existing facilities to meet the same building standards as newly constructed hospitals.
The lawsuit filed this week in Arlington County Circuit Court claims there is no medical justification for requiring clinics to meet those standards, which cover such matters as hallway widths and closet sizes. It also says Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, an anti-abortion Republican, erroneously advised the board that it lacked legal authority to exempt existing clinics from the new-hospital construction standards.
The attorney general’s office is reviewing the lawsuit and had no immediate comment, spokesman Brian Gottstein said Thursday.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2011 passed legislation requiring the regulation and licensure of abortion clinics. Supporters say the regulations are intended to protect women’s health, but opponents say the aim is to put clinics out of business by mandating renovations they cannot afford. Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk cited the regulations as one of the reasons for closing in April, a week after the state board gave its final approval on an 11-2 vote, leaving 19 abortion clinics operating in the state.
Falls Church Healthcare Center says in the lawsuit that it would have to spend $2 million on renovations of its century-old building to comply with the regulations.
“We are committed to providing women’s healthcare to the underserved population in northern Virginia,” Rosemary Codding, the center’s director, said in a telephone interview. “They’re taking away the rights of these women, and I have to stand up for them.”
Last year, against the advice of a senior assistant attorney general, the board voted to exempt existing clinics from the new-hospital building code. Cuccinelli, the GOP candidate for governor, refused to certify the regulations. He told board members they had exceeded their authority, and his office might not represent them if they were sued. The board reversed its position and applied the new-hospital standards to existing facilities.
In its complaint, the medical center says the regulations conflict with an executive order signed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell requiring exploration of less restrictive alternatives in adopting regulations that have a financial impact on small businesses. It also says there is no rational basis for imposing tougher building standards on abortion clinics than other existing medical facilities.
The abortion clinics have defended their safety records. However, inspections conducted while the regulations were going through the regulatory process uncovered scores of violations. Among them, the anti-abortion Family Foundation of Virginia noted, were dried blood on some equipment at the Falls Church center.
“The women who visit the Falls Church Healthcare Center would be better served if the owners spent money preventing the bloody and improperly sterilized equipment and patient examination tables found in inspections and having basic procedures to protect the health of its patients,” the organization’s president, Victoria Cobb, said in a written statement. “Instead they are spending it on a lawsuit to protect themselves from having public health officials hold them accountable.”
Codding said she the droplets of blood were not a major issue, and corrective measures have been taken.
“We’ve been re-inspected twice, and we have a license to operate through 2014,” she said.
The lawsuit names the Virginia Board of Health, the Virginia Department of Health and newly appointed state Health Commissioner Cynthia C. Romero as defendants. Romero succeeded Karen Remley, who resigned in October, saying political interference over the abortion clinic regulations had compromised her ability to do her job.
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