October 26, 2012

As a doctor, I know that the first rule of medicine is to do no harm. I believe strongly that rule should apply to government as well, but unfortunately my governor and attorney general appear to disagree. From fighting against health insurance reform to pushing transvaginal ultrasound requirements for women seeking abortions, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and their allies in the General Assembly have sought to do harm to Virginia women and Virginia families. While they have failed in many of those efforts, it appears they will succeed in one: their crusade to limit access to reproductive health care by imposing unreasonable regulations on abortion clinics.

This month, Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned, saying that she could not in good faith enforce these onerous regulations on clinics. I have known Remley for 20 years, and I have the highest respect for her as a person, as a health practitioner and as a public servant. We served together as physicians at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, where she was an exceptional emergency-room doctor, and again in Richmond, where we worked with then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and a bipartisan coalition of legislators to ban smoking in Virginia restaurants.

Sadly, McDonnell and Cuccinelli’s dogged pursuit of rules to control women’s bodies has forced Remley to step down from a job that should never be subject to this kind of partisan pressure. Duties of the health commissioner include responding to public health emergencies, providing health and wellness services and delivering scientifically sound rules and guidance for health-care providers and the public. The job does not call for administering unnecessary and expensive policies designed to bar people from safe, legal medical care. Remley has won effusive praise for her leadership of the Health Department, most notably for her handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak in Virginia. Losing her leaves Virginia with a tremendous void in its public health team.

Since his election in 2009, McDonnell has chosen to focus his energies on social-issue shenanigans rather than on fixing the commonwealth’s crumbling roads and struggling schools. He has failed to position the state to take advantage of the economic recovery as it happens, and Virginia businesses and families will suffer. In addition to patronizing women by promoting this new set of restrictive regulations as important for their safety, McDonnell has set the precedent for government to invade the office of any health-care provider performing even the least risky outpatient procedure. If that happens, providers and patients can expect the cost of health care to skyrocket. Coming from an administration that touts less regulation as the answer to our economic problems, this approach is puzzling and troublesome.

Remley’s resignation shows how far outside the political mainstream McDonnell and Cuccinelli have drifted. We should never politicize public health for the same reason we should never politicize public safety or national security: Lives are on the line.


Former Virginia health commissioner Karen Remley. (Joe Mahoney/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

More troubling than losing the service of any one individual, though, is the chilling effect this kind of agenda-pushing has on others who might be inclined to serve. We need to encourage the best and brightest to enter public service, and we need to retain them once they do. Failing to do so betrays the trust of those we represent, and actively chasing off effective, experienced leaders makes government less effective and less efficient.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Norfolk in the Virginia Senate.