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Fight for Abortion Rights in Louisiana Continues as DHH Rescinds New Regulations
by Hillary Donnell
Wednesday Feb 12th, 2014 7:52 AM
The Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana issued 21 pages of new regulations regulating abortion providers, but rescinded the regulations just before a public hearing. Advocates continue to organize to protect women's health and anticipate more regulations from the state.
Last Tuesday a group of reproductive rights supporters gathered on the steps of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) in Baton Rouge to address what they called a back door ban on abortions. A ban that would disproportionately affect low-income women. [Stand up, Fight Back] The rally was initially scheduled as a demonstration against new rules issued by the DHH last November regarding the operation of abortion clinics across the state. The demonstrators had planned on submitting opinions and testimony at a hearing that was scheduled for Tuesday. But late Monday night legislators cancelled the hearing and rescinded all 21 pages of the previously enacted regulations. This came as a surprise to Louisiana’s 5 abortion providers and their supporters who have been working since November to bring their clinics into compliance. An administrator at the Women’s Health Care Center in New Orleans says her clinic heard found out about the regulations from a second hand source. [Sylvia: To be honest we were not given notice that these regulations were coming. On December 2nd we got a one-page fax saying these are your new regulations and they are effective immediately. It was a blindside. We had no clue that they were coming down].

With this new set of rules, the DHH completely overhauled the existing legislation governing abortion providers and granted themselves the power to close any clinic that failed to comply. The 21 pages included burdensome requirements for both the clinics and the women who use them. The complex and ambiguous language of the document made it difficult to implement for clinic administrators who want to continue providing services to the women in their communities. [Sylvia 2:08 We’ve been first trying to figure out what they mean…there are some things that need interpretation.].

One of the most clearly written portions of the initial document required a 30 day waiting period between the administration of blood tests and the actual abortion procedure. Julie Finger, a pediatrician practicing in the New Orleans area, says that this extended waiting period was not only unconstitutional, but medically unnecessary. [Julie: 53-first there’s absolutely no medical logic behind this you would want those lab tests done as close as possible to the procedure. You would actually want that the day before you did the procedure.] Outspoken critics and activists garnered national media attention to this new rule that presented a clear undue burden to women seeking terminations. Legislators rescinded the 30 day waiting period just a few days before they decided to cancel Tuesday’s hearing.

However, according to attorney Ellie Schilling several other parts of the document that remained intact were also unconstitutional. According to the new restrictions if clinics needed to renovate, relocate or change the ownership of their facility they would have to apply for a new license. Facilities applying for new licenses would have to meet square footage requirements and a submit corresponding “certificate of need”. A spokesperson for The Women’s Health Care Center, one of two operating clinics in the New Orleans area said they certainly would not be able to meet these if something were to happen.
[Sylvia: “If we had to rebuild we would have to get a certificate of need, even if you are able to justify that you’re needed, they don’t have to accept it, so they have you boxed in.]

Ellie Schilling an attorney representing a New Orleans based clinic feels that the outlook for Louisiana’s 5 abortion providing facilities is bleak. [Schilling: They’re so onerous that none of the existing clinics will be able to comply with them. Basically, if these regulations were enacted the clinics would be operating at the whim of the state and they can go around shutting them down as they want.]

The Midtown Medical was an OBGYN clinic and abortion provider on St. Charles Avenue that had been providing care to New Orleans women for over 40 years until they were shut down by the DHH in 2012. Marie Couevas is the owner of Midtown Medical. She says that they closed down after DHH officials performing a survey of the clinic found two clerical errors in 65 pages of charts and revoked their license. [:55 We had no problems complying, but they would come in and interpret these rules in an arbitrary way, we had no idea that would mean what they would say it would mean.] Couevas says that the DHH used the ambiguity of the regulatory language to their advantage. [ 2:53- “Under that type of environment you cant not get written up, you can’t not get deficiencies. Something silly like a clerical error which has nothing to do with the health or welfare of women.”] Couevas feels that Midtown was targeted as a clinic because they provided abortion services in addition to comprehensive women’s health services. [Couevas: “I took care of patients, abortion was just one of the myriad of services we offered. But that’s what the powers that be don’t want and they don’t care who they have to walk over to get it]. Couevas has been in litigation with the DHH since last year. She was in Baton Rouge to oppose the new rules that would grant the DHH even more power to shut down well run, compliant clinics like her own.

For women in Louisiana one less clinic could mean having to travel out of state to terminate a pregnancy. Amy Irvin of the New Orleans Abortion Fund that provides financial assistance to women seeking terminations worries what a clinic closure would mean for women across the South. [Amy: 8:56—“I don’t know where women would go if a clinic closed because already we get calls from women from Mississippi. When the laws passed in Texas the clinic here in New Orleans began getting calls from Texas]. For women who are already struggling financially, multiple days away from a job and costly travel arrangements are real and potentially unsurmountable obstacles. [Amy: 9:37-- “If clinics close here it’s going to have a disastrous effect for women who are already struggling to make and pay for the appointments”

[Amy 10:16-- “To lose a clinic is going to force women into making very hard decisions. 10:45--They’re saying I would resort to illegal means, or home remedies or other dangerous methods.”]. Abortions in Louisiana are costly. The price tag can range anywhere from 450 to 900 dollars depending on the procedure. According to staff at the Women’s Health Care Center many women who are not ale to pay these hefty sums are already putting themselves in harms way to terminate their pregnancies. [Sylvia: 1:33- What were seeing here, because we offer the abortion pill… they’re paying 300 for a pill and they don’t. Because they’re being priced out for the regular procedure. And if something happens to them of course they end up in a hospital because they have no physician to follow them.]

Irvin and others from the New Orleans Abortion Fund had been collecting testimony from women who have benefitted from the services provided by local abortion clinics. Women’s testimonies were intended to be read during the hearing on Tuesday to convince legislators of the need for abortion providers in the community. Though there was no hearing, NOAF submitted these testimonies along with six thousand comments to the DHH. [Schilling: “We hope that the DHH has seen these women’s voices…not just these regulations] However, with the Louisiana legislative session beginning again in March the DHH has said it intends to revise and resubmit a new set of regulations sometime in the future. Unsurprisingly a spokesperson from DHH declined to say when. Advocates for women’s right to access safe, affordable abortion care have made clear that they will continue to present opposition to Louisiana legislators surreptitious rulings. [Schilling: We’re hopeful that the legislature will take note and if they don’t we’ll be back to ask them to rethink these policies].