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Posted at 2:43 PM ET, 03/11/2011

Speedy process for new abortion clinic rules outlined

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Editors

Virginia's abortion clinics will face new regulations by Jan. 1 under a speedy process for adopting emergency rules for clinics outlined Friday for the state's Board of Health.

Health Commissioner Karen Remley told the board's 14 members (a 15th seat is currently vacant) at their quarterly meeting in Richmond that a law adopted by the General Assembly last month requires that rules be written no more than 280 days after Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell (R) signs the bill into law. He has until March 29 to do so and has said he supports the measure.

Remley said that timeframe triggers the state's emergency regulatory process -- rather than a more plodding standard process that typically takes more than two years.

The emergency rule writing process significantly expands the power of the health department and gubernatorial staff in writing the regulations.

It means the Board of Health -- which at present includes eight members appointed by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine (D) -- has just one opportunity to formally weigh in before rules go into place. It will occur Sept. 15, when the group reviews, amends and ultimately votes on a draft of new rules written by staff members.

Once adopted by the Board of Health, the emergency regulations can still be altered by Mc­Don­nell, who will consult with the Department of Planning and Budget and Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli (R). Remley told board members that Mc­Don­nell will sign the regulations by January 1, after which they will go into effect.

The emergency rules will be in place for up to 18 months, while the Board of Health goes through a process that includes extensive public comment as it formulates permanent rules.

Public comment also is more limited during the emergency phase -- rather than offering written comments, the public will have one opportunity to speak to the Board of Health. It will take place on Sept. 15, the same day the board will take action.

Abortion clinics are now treated like doctor's offices in Virginia. Anti-abortion advocates have been pushing for two decades to impose new rules more like those imposed on ambulatory surgical centers. They say such rules will make Virginia clinics safer for women.

But abortion rights activists argue that surgical center-like rules could force the closure of up to 17 of the state's 21 clinics. They said Friday that they are concerned that the process for writing new emergency rules is being rushed and that the public will not have enough opportunity to weigh in.

"This is going to happen so very fast," said Paulette McElwain, President and CEO of the Virginia Leauge for Planned Parenthood. "There's very little we can do."

They said they fear tough emergency regulations will put clinics out of business -- even if permanent rules adopted through a longer process are less restrictive. Clinic operators and others have said they will sue if they believe the regulations interfere with a woman's ability to get an abortion.

According to Remley, health department staff will review regulations adopted by 21 other states that have clinic licensure from now until May, including conducting interviews with their counterparts in other areas. From May to August, the staff will write draft regulations.

On or around Sept. 1, the draft regulations will be circulated to Board of Health members. At that time, staffer Joe Hilbert indicated they would be available for review by the public upon request.

During the board's public comment period Friday, two speakers urged the group to adopt regulations similar to those in place in South Carolina. The South Carolina rules have been upheld by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. They said the rules are legally sound and would ensure clinics operate safely in Virginia.

South Carolina's rules are considered among the strictest in the country.

A group of students from Virginia Commonwealth University also addressed the board and urged it to adopt rules that will not force clinics to close.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | March 11, 2011; 2:43 PM ET
Categories:  Rosalind Helderman  
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