Louisiana moves ahead with abortion licensing standard rewrite, despite clinic opposition

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has rewritten the state's abortion clinic regulations, a move that abortion-rights supporters say was unnecessary and intended to hinder the operation of clinics.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals this week published the final version of the 20-page revamp of clinic licensing standards, making no substantive changes to regulations proposed in December that sparked more than 1,800 comments filed in opposition.

The agency says the rewrite accounts for recent legislative changes while spelling out licensing requirements and staffing provisions designed to protect women's safety. The department has acknowledged some language changes go beyond mandates from lawmakers.

"There are clear health risks associated with an abortion that could require urgent medical attention. Therefore, it is crucial for providers of abortions in Louisiana to meet any requirements outlined by the Louisiana Legislature and promulgated by the department," agency spokeswoman Ashley Lewis said in a statement.

Critics, who packed a public hearing in January to oppose the changes, say the rewritten licensing standards are part of an effort by Jindal and leaders in conservative Southern states to chip away at access to a legal procedure by adding limitations.

"We're deeply disappointed that our call for regulations based on medicine were ignored, and the Jindal administration has instead decided to risk patient health and safety by imposing further restrictions on a woman's ability to have a safe, legal abortion in Louisiana," Melissa Flournoy, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast's Louisiana director, said in a statement.

At the public hearing, New Orleans lawyer Ellie Schilling, representing the abortion clinics, said the regulations add burdensome paperwork requirements, demand duplicative filings and make it easier for Louisiana to cite an abortion clinic for deficiencies and yank its license.

And she said the regulations offer limited ways for a clinic to appeal a license revocation.

As an example, Schilling pointed to a requirement that a clinic document every "job skill" of every employee, place it in a personnel file and update the file with an annual evaluation to determine whether each job skill has been met. With small staffs constantly changing job demands, she said, clinics can easily be deemed out of compliance.

Lewis said the regulation rewrite places all licensing requirements in a single location to give abortion providers clarification of what is required of them. She described the rule changes as "designed to better protect the health and lives of Louisiana women."

Like many Southern states, Louisiana has continually added new restrictions on abortion in recent years. A recent law requiring doctors who perform abortions to be able to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles is on hold while a federal lawsuit is pending. Opponents say it will shutter all five abortion clinics in the state. A similar law was struck down in Mississippi, but a Texas admitting-privileges law has been upheld.

Whether anyone will file a lawsuit against the Louisiana regulatory rewrite wasn't clear.

Schilling didn't return requests for comment Tuesday. Jewel Bush, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said in an email that the organization "is committed to protecting access to safe, legal abortion and views this as an urgent situation, and we will explore all options."

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