New abortion clinic rules are opposed

New regulations proposed by the state could lead to the shutdown of Louisiana’s abortion clinics, an attorney representing the facilities said Tuesday.

New Orleans attorney Ellie T. Schilling said the proposed licensing standards raise serious constitutional issues.

“They pose an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion services,” she said.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals published an emergency rule late last year, citing the need to ensure “the health and safety of women.” The revisions are to comply with new state laws approved during the 2013 legislative session, according to DHH.

Abortion opponents had mounted a campaign aimed at imposing a higher level of state oversight and policing of abortion clinics. New laws were aimed at preventing telemedicine abortions in Louisiana and preventing parents from forcing underage daughters to have an abortion.

The push came as Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast prepared to build a New Orleans health center that would offer abortion services. Planned Parenthood operations in New Orleans and Baton Rouge previously have not provided abortions.

DHH has scheduled a public hearing on the changes Feb. 4 at its Baton Rouge headquarters. It originally was scheduled for Wednesday but icy weather led to its cancellation.

Schilling questions whether DHH gave proper public notice of the date change.

On Tuesday, Louisiana Right to Life executive Benjamin Clapper said the “dangerous (abortion) industry” should be held to the same standards as those of other medical facilities. “We expect the final standards implemented by DHH will protect the women and minor girls of Louisiana from the often unsafe conditions found in abortion facilities,” Clapper said in a statement.

Schilling said the intent of the rule is very clearly to shut down Louisiana abortion clinics. Today there are five operating in the state one each in New Orleans, Metairie, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Bossier City.

Schilling said clinics’ right to appeal violations has been “dramatically reduced,” minor deficiencies can result in licenses being revoked, and changes in ownership or clinic locations require new licensing.

Appeals also are not heard by an “unbiased” entity, which poses constitutional “due process” problems, she said.

The new rules also impose square-footage requirements on procedure and recovery rooms that are onerous and unnecessary, she added.

“If the regulations were to go into effect, no clinic would be in compliance with those size requirements,” Schilling said. “None of the existing facilities are large enough by a lot.” She said renovations would be too costly.

“There’s a whole bunch of ways a licensed facility can be kicked out and have to apply for a new license,” Schilling said. The clinic losing its license would have to submit a “certificate of need” to the state proving the need for its services, she said.

Another change would require a woman to have hemoglobin and Rh factor blood tests at least 30 days prior to the abortion procedure, Schilling said.

“It will amount in many cases to a 30-day waiting period” because the tests are not routinely ordered by a physician, Schilling said. The delay could push the abortion beyond Louisiana’s 20-week deadline to have an abortion, she said, and lead to unnecessary expense for the woman.

“That is a blantantly unconstitutional requirement,” Schilling said.

DHH responded to a request for an interview with emailed comments. Olivia Watkins, DHH spokeswoman, said the agency received “several” public comments on the rules and planned changes to square-footage specifications and a requirement that patients have blood tests at least 30 days prior to the procedure.

“The intent of the language on ‘square footage’ in the rule is to cover prospective facilities or facilities undergoing renovations,” Watkins said. “DHH will clarify this language.”

She said the “square footage” cited in the rule follows standards for other outpatient medical providers. Schilling disagrees.

Watkins said DHH also will “be rescinding the language regarding the 30-day period for blood tests.”

Watkins did not respond to a request Tuesday for more details on the potential changes.

Schilling said she has heard some revisions in the original proposal will be made but she has not seen them.

“Those are two of the issues we have been highlighting. But in and of themselves it certainly does not solve the problems with the regs,” Schilling said.