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Virginia Abortion Clinic Regulations Challenged In Lawsuit By Falls Church Healthcare Center

Jun 14, 2013 | Updated Aug 14, 2013
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A Northern Virginia health clinic has filed the first legal challenge to new state Board of Health regulations governing Virginia's first-trimester abortion facilities.

The Falls Church Healthcare Center filed the lawsuit this week in Arlington County Circuit Court against the regulations -- passed by the Board of Health in April -- which reclassified Virginia's 19 clinics as new hospitals and subjected them retroactively to building standards for new hospital construction.

The 47-page suit filed by the Venable Law Firm in Tysons Corner argues that the rules are the product of a "legally flawed process" that failed to consider the impact of the changes on a small business and reflect "the lack of any rational, medical or public health basis" for regulating the clinics as hospitals.

It calls the regulations "arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion" that subject the clinics to rules to which medical offices and even current hospitals are not subject.

Further it claims that the office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, which advised the board on the regulations and refused to certify a board decision last June to exempt existing clinics from the new rules, gave the board bad legal advice and overstepped its authority in the matter.

"We are reviewing the suit and have no further comment right now," said Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Abortion-rights advocates contend the regulations, supported by anti-abortion groups and adopted as part of a 2011 law passed by the General Assembly, were intended to impose structural requirements so costly that the clinics would be forced to close.

"After Ken Cuccinelli bullied the Board of Health into enacting burdensome and unnecessary restrictions that reflect his extreme ideology, not medical evidence, it's not surprising legal questions have arisen," said Anna Scholl of the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia.

"These restrictions are about politics, not health care, and have one aim: to effectively ban safe and legal abortion by shutting down women's health centers."

Supporters of the new rules, most of them opposed to abortion, argue that the regulations are necessary to protect women's health and hold the clinics accountable for multiple health code violations uncovered by recent inspections.

"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," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia and wife of Gov. Bob McDonnell's Deputy Secretary of Health, Matt Cobb.

"Instead they are spending it on a lawsuit to protect themselves from having public health officials hold them accountable."

The lawsuit says it would cost the Falls Church Healthcare Center roughly $2 million to renovate its facility to meet the new standards. The clinic had about $1 million in business last year.

The regulations prompted a clinic in Hampton Roads to close this year rather than seek regulatory approval. The remaining clinics have until next summer to comply with the new building requirements.

jnolan@timesdispatch.com

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