NC health department suspends license for Asheville abortion clinic kgarloch@charlotteobserver.comJuly 31, 2013 

As abortion politics continue to roil North Carolina, state health officials Wednesday suspended the license of an Asheville abortion clinic.

The third sanction against a North Carolina abortion clinic since April came two days after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a controversial abortion bill while protesters held vigil outside the governor’s Executive Mansion.

Critics say the bill will curtail access to legal abortion, but McCrory says it will ensure women’s health and safety.

Wednesday’s action against Asheville’s Femcare came after similar sanctions earlier this year against clinics in Charlotte and Durham. Each of those closings came under current health laws.

In a 49-page report, the Department of Health and Human Services found “egregious violations … that revealed an imminent threat to the health and safety of patients” at the clinic.

Violations included failure to maintain anesthesia delivery systems and ensure regular checks of emergency equipment.

The new law, among other things, calls for DHHS to draw new standards for abortion clinics. Under an earlier version of the bill – which McCrory threatened to veto – Femcare would have been the only clinic to meet the more stringent standards.

Critics of the new abortion law say Wednesday’s suspension proves that current health laws are sufficient.

“It shows that the regulations are currently tough enough in North Carolina and are working and that DHHS should have the resources they need to inspect these facilities more often,” said Melissa Reed, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood.

“That’s true,” said McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo. “But now we’re going to get even better because the budget is going to give us 10 more inspectors.”

DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos has said her department lacks the staff to adequately inspect the state’s health facilities. The Asheville suspension came about as a result of a routine inspection.

“My obligation is to ensure the health and safety (of) the citizens of our state,” she said Wednesday. “And when presented the evidence, the one and only decision was the one that was made.”

‘A very good thing’

Abortion opponents applauded Wednesday’s action.

“I consider it very good news anytime an abortion clinic gets closed down,” said David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic diocese that includes Asheville. “Unborn children were scheduled to be killed there and if that does not happen, it is a very good thing. It says to me that … the state is being much more vigilant in what is happening in these clinics.”

Wos said her agency hasn’t yet started revising the standards called for in the bill McCrory signed. Some lawmakers proposed – and McCrory rejected – requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical facilities. In a compromise, DHHS will draw new, still unspecified changes.

“The purpose of the rules is to prevent situations like this clinic,” Wos said. “The purpose of rules is to keep people healthy.”

But Suzanne Buckley, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of NARAL, said new regulations have another purpose.

“These additional layers are not about medical safety,” she said, “but creating additional burdens that are medically unnecessary. They’re designed to make abortion less available and less accessible.”

In April, state health officials revoked the license of A Preferred Woman’s Health Center on Latrobe Drive in Charlotte. Last month they shut down The Baker Clinic for Women in Durham. The Charlotte clinic has since been allowed to reopen. It’s unclear whether the Durham clinic is back in business.

High-profile resignation

Meanwhile, state health officials said Tuesday’s resignation of Dr. Laura Gerald, the former director of the Division of Public Health, was not connected to the abortion clinic decision.

“I think there are people trying to portray it that way, but no, the answer’s no,” said DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry.

Henry said the public health division has no role in regulating “ambulatory surgical facilities, which would include abortion clinics.

“They’re two separate divisions,” Henry said. “The decision on this (abortion) clinic came through actions of the Division of Health Service Regulation, which is totally separate form the Division of Public Health.”

Henry said Gerald would not have been involved in supervising the work of the Division of Health Service Regulation, which is headed by Drexdal Pratt.

In her resignation letter earlier this week, Gerald, who had held her position during Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration, said she appreciated being part of McCrory’s administration.

But, she added, “I acknowledge I have significant differences and disagreements with many of the policy and administrative directions I see unfolding in North Carolina and in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“These differences are making it increasingly impossible for me to continue to be effective in my current role. Nonetheless, I ultimately believe that we all want to see the state continue to move forward.”

Staff writers Sarah Ellis, Neil Haggerty and Caitlin Owens of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

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