The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has suspended the licenses of three abortion providers since May. The Charlotte Observer reports that the significant increase in closures in 2013—prior to May, only two clinics had been suspended since 1999—might be an indicator that regulators are becoming “more aggressive” at the same time that debate has raged in the state over an omnibus abortion bill.
According to the Observer, DHHS records show the state’s 16 clinics are inspected periodically and have received violations in the past for a broad range of “deficiencies”—from “poor record keeping to more serious violations,” such as “using a single-dose vial of a narcotic for multiple patients instead of discarding it after the first use.” The violations that led to the suspension of the three clinics, the Observer reports, “are similar to problems that in past years have not led to suspensions, records show. DHHS says the current deficiencies posed imminent threats.”
A timeline provided by the Observer shows that the second clinic to have its license suspended this year, the Baker Clinic for Women in Durham, was inspected and had its license suspended during the same week-long period when HB 695, a Sharia law bill that was amended with a number of abortion restrictions, was unveiled in the state senate. That same week, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said he would veto HB 695, but that he would support a bill to protect patient safety. His chief of staff had already gotten word that the clinic’s license was suspended. The day the Baker Clinic’s license suspension was made public, the governor name-checked the clinic while discussing how the state must “ensure that the health of women is protected.”
The owner of the clinic noted at the time that the violation for which its license was suspended, which had to do with improperly testing patient blood, was already being addressed and that the clinic was hoping to reopen soon.
The most recent clinic in the state to have its license suspended is Femcare in Asheville. “State Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Asheville, said Thursday that the timing looks political,” the Asheville Citizen Times reported. Fisher told the paper that only five days after the clinic’s first warning about deficiencies, it was told to close down immediately; it had originally been told it would have ten days to comply. “All of these things together don’t add up exactly to this is not politics, this is just following the new guidelines,” said Rep. Fisher.
The clinic’s closure was announced just days after Gov. McCrory signed SB 353, a bill that would allow the DHHS to create new licensing rules for the state’s abortion providers.
Although it is unclear what ambulatory surgical center licensing requirements will be applied to abortion clinics now that SB 353 has been signed into law, it is clear that the new bill will increase the number of DHHS inspectors from ten to 20. Whether the extra inspectors will continue to take an “aggressive” stance in the implementation of the state’s new rules remains to be seen.