Outgoing Boardof Health member blasts Cuccinelli, others over abortion clinic regs

Last week was Jim Edmondson’s last meeting as a member of the Virginia Board of Health.

But the McLean real estate developer — appointed to the board as a consumer advocate by Democratic governors Mark R. Warner in 2005 and Timothy M. Kaine in 2009 — did not go quietly.

 Toward the end of the meeting late last week, Edmondson read a prepared statement that amounted to a scathing criticism of the politics and politicians that led to the board’s recent adoption of stringent new regulations that will force the state’s 19 existing abortion clinics to retroactively comply with standards for new hospital construction. (The letter appears below.)

“One doesn’t protect health by curtailing access to care,” Edmondson said in his statement. “One doesn’t protect women’s health by taking action to close clinics that provide essential services to mostly poor women…and having done that, then also oppose Medicaid expansion.  Those positions do not by any rational definition that I can fathom support public health.

  “…I apologize for a political speech of sorts,” his statement continues.  “But movement from apolitical to political follows the path this Board has had to take.  My hope is that a change in the leadership of the Commonwealth will bring moderation to the regulation of this one major aspect of public health and keep women’s health clinics open.”

 Edmondson, whose term expires at the end of this month, said he does not expect to be reappointed to the board by Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose appointees now comprise a solid majority of board members. 

 But Edmondson said he would return to the board if he were reappointed.

 For months, Edmondson was among a minority of Board members who opposed stringent new construction requirements imposed on the existing abortion clinics by a 2011 law passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

 To Edmondson, the regulations – which classified the clinics as hospitals — were intended to do what McDonnell and fellow anti-abortion Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli could not do by law – effectively outlaw abortion in Virginia by imposing new hospital construction requirements on existing facilities that are so costly that it will force them to close.

 In numerous speeches to the board during the regulatory process, he argued that existing clinics should be grandfathered from the new requirements.

 The board took such a step last summer by a 7-4 vote, only to reverse itself, 11-2 that September following a memo from Cuccinelli’s office refusing to certify the regulations.

 The memo said the law did not allow the board to take such action and suggested that board members risked losing legal representation from the office if they did not abide by its advice. 

 Edmondson’s departure follows a final vote in April by the board to adopt the construction regulations. Between July of 2014 and October, 2014, all 19 first trimester clinics still operating in the state will have to comply with the regulations, which govern everything from the width of hallways to parking spaces. mes

 Proponents of the new standards, most of them anti-abortion advocates, argued that the regulations are critical to protect women’s health in the clinics, and say the clinics need to be regulated  

 But it also comes as abortion rights advocates challenged whether the retroactive application of the construction requirements to the clinics creates unequal treatment under the law by not imposing the same requirements on all existing hospitals.

 Abortion rights activist Molly Vick petitioned the board to apply the construction standards to all hospitals. She argued that hospitals routinely have received exemptions from retroactively complying with changes in construction standards. New hospitals and substantial renovations to existing hospitals are the only facilities that must comply with the new construction standards to which the the existing clinics are being held.

 Before the regulations were adopted, the state’s clinics were subject to the same regulation as medical offices that also function as outpatient surgery centers, performing invasive procedures such as oral surgery, laser surgery, colonoscopies and spinal taps.

 A motion to hold a special meeting of the board to consider Vick’s petitioned failed to generate three votes, with Edmondson and like-minded board member Anna Jeng of Norfolk the only supporters.

 Because the next Board of Health meeting is not until September, the Health Commissioner Dr. Cynthia Romero will make the decision on the petition.

 Despite the regulatory steps under already way, the imposition of the standards on the clinics will likely come down to who is elected governor this November. 

 Cuccinelli is running against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who recently received the endorsement of a number of women’s rights groups, including , NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

 The governor appoints the health commissioner, who would have the ability to grant waivers to the clinics from the new rules. The last commissioner, Dr. Karen Remley, left the post in October citing political interference in the clinic regulatory process.

Edmondson’s statement appears below:

Statement of James H. Edmondson
Photo: Jim Nolan

Statement of James H. Edmondson