Public comment period on McAuliffe’s call for abortion clinic review ends this week

The Virginia Department of Health has received about 7,000 comments on whether strict hospital-style regulations on abortion clinics should be retained, amended, or repealed and rewritten since Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for expediting a review of the rules.

In the first executive directive of his term, McAuliffe (D) in May called for the usual review process, which wouldn’t have begun until as late as 2017, to be accelerated. The regulatory process still could take years to complete.

The move puts the polarizing issue of abortion back on the front burner in the state. McAuliffe had promised during his race for governor that he would undo the clinic regulations that were passed under his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The public has until Thursday to submit comments. Health Commissioner Marissa Levine, whom McAuliffe appointed in February, has until Oct. 1 to complete her review .

Regulations require the commonwealth’s 18 abortion clinics to widen hallways, add parking spaces and make other costly building renovations that abortion rights groups say block access for women seeking care. Groups opposed to abortion say the rules are needed to ensure safety for women and access for emergency personnel.

If Levine decides to amend or fully repeal the regulations, Health Department staff will prepare a notice to the Board of Health that could be a vague call for change or outline specific changes to the regulations.

Once the board approves the notice, Health Department staff will write preliminary draft text, a process that could take 18 to 24 months. When the draft text is ready, the Health Department will share it with the board and open another round of public comment.

The Health Board has meetings scheduled in September and December, but it has not been decided if and when they would take action.

On Tuesday morning, four abortion-rights groups — Progress VA, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia — submitted 4,844 comments to the Department of Health.

“The volume of comment from Virginians and medical professionals delivered to the Department of Health today firmly emphasizes that the current medically unnecessary regulation of women’s health-care centers must be repealed and rewritten,” said Katherine Greenier, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the ACLU of Virginia.

Jessica Cochrane, a policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Virginia, called the in-person delivery of comments a “publicity stunt” and accused abortion clinics of many health violations.

“The $1 billion abortion industry is counting on Terry McAuliffe to put the abortion industry’s profits ahead of the health care of women in Virginia,” Cochrane said in a statement. “If women’s health care is truly the abortion industry’s concern it can continue to offer all the other services it claims to provide and not have to meet the health and safety standards required to perform abortions.”

Comments from members of the public who oppose changes to the rules dominate the state’s online portal, which had collected about 1,880 comments as of Tuesday afternoon. The public comment period began June 16 and ends at midnight Thursday.

Along with his call for the review in May, McAuliffe replaced five of the 15 members of the Health Board, but he has no plans to weigh in before the end of the current public comment period.

“These were regulations that were marred by politics, so we’re going to try to keep politics out of them and let the actual health and well-being of Virginians take precedence before politics, but that is not what happened last time,” his spokesman, Brian Coy, said.

The issue has a contentious history in Virginia. In early 2011, the General Assembly voted for and McDonnell approved a law that categorized facilities that perform five or more abortions a month as hospitals.

Health Department staff wrote temporary rules that imposed strict building standards on all clinics, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012. During the permanent regulatory process, the Health Board voted to grandfather-in existing clinics but in September 2012 reversed itself after then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) told board members that he believed they overstepped their authority and that he would not defend them from potential litigation. The permanent rules took effect in June 2013.

After the initial legislation was passed in 2011, one clinic decided to stop offering abortion services. Two others closed their doors last year.

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.

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