Gov. Bob McDonnell has certified health regulations that impose strict hospital construction standards on Virginia abortion clinics -- triggering the next step in a multitiered approval process that could make the revised rules permanent by this summer.
Unlike the public relations ballyhoo that accompanies many executive actions, McDonnell, an anti-abortion Republican, certified the regulations and had them posted to the Virginia Town Hall website without a public announcement on the Friday between the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
The signoff comes more than three months after the rules were adopted in September by the state Board of Health at a contentious meeting during which abortion-rights advocates claimed board members were being intimidated into changing their decision in June to grandfather existing clinics from the building requirements.
Members of abortion-rights advocacy groups reacted strongly to the governor's approval in statements released Monday.
"After two years of shocking backroom deals and bullying public health servants, Gov. Bob McDonnell is clearly proving his disregard of Virginians' opinions about women's health care," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Keene accused McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, also an anti-abortion Republican, of using their offices to push "an ideological agenda that is out of touch with the residents of this state" -- and pushing the commonwealth toward having some of the most "extreme state abortion laws" in the country.
McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said the regulations are a product of legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2011 and went through an extensive public comment process and detailed agency review that followed the same process that all proposed changes to regulations undergo in Virginia.
"The governor believes these common-sense regulations will help ensure that this medical procedure takes place in facilities that are modern, safe and well-regulated, in order to help ensure the safety and well-being of all patients," Martin said.
McDonnell's approval initiates a 60-day public comment period. Following the comment period, the regulations are sent back through the process of review by the Board of Health -- which could vote on them as early as March -- before heading to the attorney general and executive branch agencies. The permanent regulations are expected to be adopted by the summer.
Under the two-year compliance period stipulated by the Department of Health, Virginia's 20 existing abortion clinics will have until the latter half of 2014 to comply with the new regulations, which will require most of the facilities to undergo costly infrastructure changes to hallways, doorways and parking areas. Advocates say a number of the clinics could be forced to close.
The health commissioner has the authority to grant a variance to the clinics if the commissioner believes the requirements place an undue burden on a facility and determines that noncompliance in a specific area would not jeopardize patient safety and public health.
McDonnell has yet to name a replacement for Health Commissioner Karen Remley, who resigned in October. She said the development, enforcement and interpretation of the regulations outside of her office had compromised her ability to fulfill her duties.
Cuccinelli had refused to certify a change to regulations adopted by the Board of Health in June that would have grandfathered the state's 20 clinics from having to meet the new standards.
Before the meeting in September, the Attorney General's Office advised board members that their action in June did not conform to the 2011 law passed by the General Assembly. The advisory suggested that they could lose legal protection if they insisted on the grandfather provision and were sued.
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