After a recent inspection revealed multiple violations, the state Department of Health and Human Services has suspended the medical license of Asheville abortion clinic FemCare Inc. — the only clinic in the state that would currently meet the new requirements of an abortion bill signed into law on July 29.
"Inspectors from [the] Division of Health Service Regulation (DHSR) found the facility failed to comply with 23 separate rules," said Drexdal Patt, director of DHSR. "We take rule violations very seriously and, when necessary, take firm action to prevent harm to patients and clients in the facilities that we license regulate and inspect."
The statement sent from DHHS on July 31 called the violations "egregious" and said they "revealed an imminent threat to the health and safety of patients."
However, Dr. Lorraine Cummings, issuing a statement on behalf of FemCare, defended the facility. "Since the state's last visit in August 2006, there have been no changes in our operating protocols, but increasing regulations require us to make changes,” said Cummings. “Standards that were acceptable when we were last inspected have changed and, as soon as we were notified of them two weeks ago, we began the process of meeting each one of them.”
The survey conducted on July 18 and 19 found that the facility failed to keep anesthesia delivery systems in good working conditions, specifically citing torn masks and tubing that were found "held together with tape" — putting patients at risk for pain and physical harm due to inadequate sedation dosages during surgical procedures. The 49-page report found several other infractions (see: “Other Violations” in sidebar).
According to the DHHS, the medical center will now have 10 days to prove that it complies with the relevant rules and 60 days to file an appeal. The last time the medical facility was inspected, the clinic was found in violation of personnel and quality assurance rules.
Cummings reiterated in her statement that FemCare has never had any problems maintaining patient safety. “We have had no patient infections using our former protocols. We expect to be in compliance soon with the required standards and will return to serving our patients as soon as possible."
FemCare’s shuttering has prompted some critics to blame political maneuvering by the state, a charge denied by DHHS Communications Director Ricky Diaz.
“People are asking if it [FemCare's closure] was political. That's absolutely not true,” said Diaz. “On average we're able to inspect the medical component of abortion clinics every 3-5 years — and that's on average. So obviously, this is about six years.”
Despite campaign promises that he would not sign any bills into law that would further restrict access to abortion, Gov. Pat McCrory signed one into law July 29 that will require abortion clinics to meet the same standards of outpatient surgical centers. In a July 3 article, investigations by Xpress found that the only abortion clinic in the state that would meet those new requirements was FemCare. It also requires that a physician be physically present in the room with a woman taking the first dose of an abortion-inducing drug. However, it does not require that a physician be present beyond the initial dose.
Critics say the legislation, entitled "Health and Safety Law Changes," will effectively shut down abortion clinics across the state. However, McCrory said the intention of the law is safety not clinic closures.
“This law does not further limit access and those who contend it does are more interested in politics than the health and safety of our citizens,” McCrory said of the newly adopted law. "These higher standards will result in safer conditions for North Carolina women."
DHHS’ Diaz maintains that the state’s actions against FemCare are not because of the law. “They have to correct the immediate jeopardy,” said Diaz, adding that they will be given the opportunity to reopen. “We work with facilities across the state. Whether it's a nursing home that we suspend their license or someone else, they are given an opportunity to correct the problem and correct the violations that pose an immediate threat.”