Virginia Board of Health Improves Abortion Regulations, “Grandfathers In” Existing Women’s Health Centers

ACLU, women’s rights advocates still concerned about patient privacy provisions

Richmond, VA – 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 to 4 to amend the proposed regulations to “grandfather in,” existing women’s 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, however, 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 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 care centers that perform five or more first-trimester abortions a year like a kind of hospital.

 

The ACLU of Virginia has partnered with the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health, which formed in 2011 as a response to the attack on women’s health and safety prompted by the passage of Senate Bill 924.  Below is the Coalition’s official statement in response to today’s vote.

 

Official Statement from the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health: 

A few hours ago, the Virginia Board of Health voted (7 to 4) to amend a key provision of the draft proposed regulations of first-trimester abortion in Virginia – the amendment means that existing women’s health care centers that provide safe, legal first-trimester abortion care will be “grandfathered in,” rather than subjected to onerous and unnecessary forced building requirements. This is a vote on the side of women’s health and well-being in Virginia.

On behalf of women in Virginia, we applaud the Board of Health for making a decision based on patient safety and health, not politics.

However, patient and provider safety and confidentiality are not similarly protected as a result of today’s proceedings. The Board did not vote to amend the draft regulations to protect patient confidentiality, which is of paramount importance to women’s health centers and their patients. The draft regulations, as they exist after today’s meeting, still leave several important loopholes in the protections for patient confidentiality, including:

 •          Allowing inspectors to remove patient records from the facility, rather than requiring them to examine the records onsite

•           Allowing inspectors to request a list of all current patients and a list of all patients from the past 12 months, an unprecedented intrusion on patient privacy

A copy of the Coalition’s written comments submitted to the Virginia Board of Health and Department of Health can be found online at the Coalition’s website. http://coalitionforwomenshealth.org/

 

About the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health:

The Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health formed in 2011 as a response to the attack on women’s health and safety prompted by Senate Bill 924. The Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health strives to protect and ensure access for all women in all regions of Virginia to safe first-trimester abortion and comprehensive reproductive health care services. The Coalition is committed to ensuring any regulations are based solely on medical and public health considerations. The Coalition is opposed to excessive, burdensome or unneeded regulations that undermine patient access to medical care for political or ideological purposes. Members, partners and allies include: ACLU of Virginia, Annandale Women and Family Center, Center for Reproductive Rights, Falls Church Healthcare Center, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, National Abortion Federation, NOVA Women’s Healthcare, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, Progress Virginia, Richmond Medical Center for Women, Virginia NOW, and Virginia Organizing.

 

Contact: Katherine Greenier, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022