What Are the Regulations Approved by the Board of Health?

As a result of Senate Bill 924, the Virginia Department of Health crafted temporary regulations for women's health centers in the state. The Board of Health, under pressure from the Attorney General’s office, voted on September 15, 2011 to approve the temporary regulations. Learn more about the Board's process for regulation drafting.

These temporary regulations contain some significant problems that would pose threats to patient access to health care and confidentiality. Women’s health centers in Virginia have been providing safe, accessible, comprehensive health care for more than thirty years. Regulations that single out abortion providers have nothing to do with the safe delivery of services for women and everything to do with legislators’ efforts to restrict access to reproductive health care. Abortion care is one of the safest surgical procedures available in the United States today.

Women’s reproductive health centers provide a full array of safe, affordable preventive health services. The regulations may drive up health care costs or drive health care providers out of practice – making comprehensive reproductive health care less accessible.

After the governor approved these temporary regulations, they went in to effect on January 1, 2012. Proposed permanent regulations are now being crafted by the Department of Health and will go before the Board of Health for a vote on June 15.

Now is the time to speak up for women’s health centers in Virginia! Final permanent regulations should be based in medicine, not politics.

What are the Temporary Regulations Approved by the Board of Health?

Regulations Affecting Patient Access to Safe, Legal Reproductive Health Care

Architectural Requirements for Buildings

The regulations require existing women’s health centers to come into compliance with three chapters of a manual called the 2010 Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities within the next two years. However, these Guidelines are intended to apply only to new construction, not to existing facilities.[1] As existing women’s health centers have been providing safe care for many years, there is no need to require them to entirely rebuild their facilities under new construction requirements.

Extensive, burdensome requirements for buildings that are unrelated to the services health centers provide and have no proven medical benefit will reduce or eliminate patient access to health care. Early abortion care is already difficult to access in the Commonwealth, with 86 percent of Virginia’s counties lacking any abortion providers.

Regulations Affecting Patient and Provider Safety and Confidentiality

Safety Concerns

The regulations give the Department of Health the right to request all ownership information and many types of women’s health center policies and procedures, such as security plans, without any requirement that these documents be kept confidential. Confidentiality is of utmost importance and abortion providers are often the targets of violence by anti-abortion extremists, who seek out information about health center ownership and policies in order to harass and intimidate abortion providers.

Patient Confidentiality

Confidentiality is of paramount importance to patients and women’s health centers. Patients are targeted for harassment outside of women’s health centers and there is a history of anti-choice activists seeking patient information in order to deter women from obtaining vital reproductive health care.

However, the regulation dealing with the inspection of women’s health centers permits Department of Health employees to arrive on the premises at any time and requires the women’s health center to give them access to the building and a variety of records. That regulation contains no consideration of whether the business is open that day, whether it is within normal business hours, and has limited consideration for patient confidentiality, or provider and patient safety. The regulation would require women’s health center staff to appear within an hour. Patient records would be reviewed without any confidentiality protections; Department of Health representatives will have access to un-redacted patient records and there are limited protections for patient confidentiality if the records are removed from the women’s health center. Moreover, Department of Health employees will even be permitted to have a list of current patients.

These regulations should be rejected by the governor so women’s health centers can continue to provide safe, accessible, comprehensive health care in Virginia.

[1] The Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities, published by the Facility Guidelines Institute and formerly published by the American Institute of Architects, and relied on by many regulatory agencies in creating new regulations for health care facilities, are "intended as minimum standards for designing and constructing new health care facility projects.” Facility Guidelines Institute, Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities 4 (2010). They are not intended to apply to existing facilities, except to the extent that those facilities are in the process of undergoing significant renovation. In those circumstances, the Guidelines specify that "renovation projects and additions to existing facilities, only that portion of the total facility affected by the project shall be required to comply with the applicable section of these Guidelines.” Id. at 6