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Associated Press, Published August 02 2013

North Carolina regulators close 3 abortion clinics

RALEIGH, N.C. — The state of North Carolina has closed three abortion clinics in the past three months for violating health and safety regulations. Until now, the state had suspended just two clinics in 14 years — in 2007 and 1999.

The sudden flurry of suspensions comes amid a highly charged political environment that has seen an unprecedented anti-abortion campaign by the state legislature over the past three years, leading to lawsuits, mass protests and praise by those who oppose the medical procedure. On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill requiring state regulators to write tougher regulations, which have not been updated since 1995, for abortion clinics. He said the bill would ensure the safety of women.

A review of state Department of Health and Human Services inspection records shows that the state’s 16 abortion clinics are periodically inspected and have been written up for “deficiencies” ranging from poor record keeping to more serious violations.

While the documents don’t indicate more inspections than usual this year, the rate of clinic closings suggests a more aggressive stance by regulators. The deficiencies justifying closing the three clinics are similar to problems that in past years have not led to suspensions, records show. DHHS says the current deficiencies posed an imminent threat.

At the same time, emails The News & Observer obtained through a public records request show that there has been political interest in the inspections at the highest levels of state government.

The messages show that the governor’s office and GOP legislators were kept apprised of the Baker Clinic closure in Durham on July?5, two days after lawmakers suddenly introduced a sweeping abortion bill. Emails over the July Fourth weekend show that key figures were notified of the closure before it became public.

Included in the email loop were Matthew McKillip, a McCrory campaign staffer who is now a senior adviser at DHHS; Thomas Stith, the governor’s chief of staff; Chloe Gossage, a former Civitas Institute staffer who is a senior fiscal analyst at the legislature; and Adam Sholar, a former law clerk to state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby who is now director of intergovernmental relations for DHHS.

Republican members of a health and human services legislative committee — along with one conservative Democrat — were also notified by email from a high-ranking DHHS official. Other Democrats on the committee were not informed.

A spokesman for DHHS said the emails were part of the agency’s standard practice of keeping the governor’s office and the legislative leadership informed.

“I think it just came as a courtesy email to let us know an action had been taken by the department,” state Sen. Louise Pate, a Mount Olive Republican who is on the committee, said Thursday. “I think it means that maybe DHHS is doing its job, or at least reacting to complaints.”

In arguing for the abortion bill’s passage last month, Republican legislators relied on reports from DHHS.

“There’s a blatant disregard for standards,” state Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, a Charlotte Republican, said on the House floor, citing figures provided by DHHS showing multiple citations at clinics.

Those who oppose abortion hail the recent closings of clinics in Durham, Charlotte and Asheville as proof that a crackdown with new regulations is needed to protect women. But abortion-rights supporters argue that it proves the system in place already works, since state inspectors caught the problems.

The state said it didn’t have enough inspectors to visit the clinics and hundreds of other facilities more than every few years. The new state budget doubles the number of inspectors to 20.

Paige Johnson, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, which owns several clinics in the state, said her group is concerned about the spate of closures. She said clinics have worked well with inspectors over the years.

“Our relationship with the state has always been a partnership ensuring women are safe and cared for respectfully, and not a kind of gotcha,” Johnson said. “There’s been a flurry of attention from the governor’s office and DHHS. What about hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, assisted living facilities? What has changed to make the state focus on abortion providers? Is it about politics?”

The state health agency says the inspections were routine.

A review of inspection reports shows that the reasons most clinics are written up is typically for gaps in protocol and for record-keeping errors. But sometimes, the violations appear more serious, such as for using a single-dose vial of a narcotic for multiple patients instead of discarding it after the first use, or for allowing a medical office assistant instead of a doctor to examine biological material after the procedure.

Registered nurses inspect the clinics for DHHS to make sure they comply with state licensing requirements. The clinics’ laboratory practices are evaluated under federal guidelines, and most of the violations typically relate to improperly handling blood.