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ACLU: Health board improves abortion regulations

The Virginia Board of Health today voted to improve a draft of the permanent regulations governing health care centers providing five or more first-trimester abortions per year.

It voted 7-4 to amend the proposed regulations to “grandfather in” existing health centers so that they are not required to meet the same architectural standards demanded of new construction. Newly constructed health centers will still have to meet new hospital construction standards.

“We are very pleased that the Board of Health chose to follow the advice provided by medical experts. This is a vote on the side of women’s health and well-being in Virginia,” said Katherine Greenier, Director of the ACLU of Virginia’s Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project. “Abortion care has been safely and effectively provided by many health care centers in the state for years and it is reassuring to know these existing providers will be able to continue delivering their services throughout the Commonwealth.”

“We are disappointed the Board of Health did not amend the proposed regulations to provide stronger safeguards for patient and provider safety and confidentiality,” added Greenier. “Patients have been targets for harassment outside of women’s health centers and there is a long history of anti-choice activists seeking patient information in order to deter women from obtaining vital reproductive health care. During the public comment period, we ask members of the public to demand women’s privacy rights, and we will urge Gov. McDonnell to amend the regulations to provide such protections.”

As drafted by the Department of Health, the permanent regulations would have required existing health care centers to meet three chapters of a manual called the 2010 Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities of the Facilities Guidelines Institute (“Guidelines”). The Guidelines are intended to apply only to new construction or major alterations, not to existing buildings themselves. Today’s amendment brings the regulations in line with regulations of all other hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, and outpatient surgical centers, which are required to follow the Guidelines in all new construction or for additions, renovations, alterations or repairs of existing buildings, but not existing buildings.

The Board of Health, however, failed to amend the regulations to provide for the safety, privacy and confidentiality of providers and patients. The proposed regulations give the Department of Health the right to request all ownership information and policies and procedures, such as security plans, without any requirement that these documents be kept confidential. The draft regulations also leave several important loopholes in the protections for patient confidentiality. For example, inspectors are allowed to remove patient records from the facility, rather than examine them onsite, and inspectors can request a list of all current patients.

The regulations were issued as a result of SB 924, a 2011 law passed by the General Assembly mandating that the Board of Health create and implement new regulations treating health centers that perform five or more first-trimester abortions a year like a kind of hospital.