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Clinics face new laws

Legislation defines clinics as hospitals, requires stringent building requirements

When legislation took effect in January which requires women's health clinics to meet stricter regulations, clinics across the state began searching for a way to comply while continuing to offer the same services to their patients.

Gov. Bob McDonnell enacted a law March 7 which classifies clinics as hospitals if they provide more than five first-trimester abortions per month and therefore requires them to adhere to more stringent building regulations. Critics of the legislation say the cost of renovating buildings to comply with the regulations would add substantial financial burdens to clinics throughout Virginia and Charlottesville.

Tanya Semones, the Virginia field coordinator for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said she thought the regulation would have serious effects on Planned Parenthood's patients. One in every five women seeks care at Planned Parenthood sometime during their life, according to the organization's website.

"We see more than 33,000 women, men and young adults across America each year," Semones said, she added that a large percentage of these patients are uninsured. She said the new requirements could cause many clinics to close if they did not have the resources to comply with the change, leaving patients without "affordable health care."

Currently, however, 20 of the 23 facilities affected by the regulations have submitted applications for new licenses which, if approved, would allow them two years to renovate and meet the legislation's standards, said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL pro-choice Virginia. Of the three which have not filed applications, two plan to perform fewer than five first-trimester abortions per month, and one has stopped providing abortions.

Planned Parenthood predominantly provides preventative treatment to men and women including breast cancer screenings, sexually transmitted disease tests, sexual education and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, according to the organization's website. Semones said 96 percent of Planned Parenthood procedures are preventive and are created to educate and help individuals in need.

"The work we do is really prevention and care for our patients," Semones said.

Olivia Gans, the president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, said it is exactly these patient safety concerns which are at the heart of the recent legislation.

"If the treatment is not being provided with safety standards, it could put the woman at risk," Gans said.

But Semones took issue with Gans' description of abortion providers.

"For many, we are their primary health provider," Semones said. "It is offensive to say women are in danger."

Semones said shutting down abortion providers does not eliminate women's needs for the procedure and only makes abortion services limited and more dangerous for women.

Semones added if clinics are forced to close because they do not have the necessary funding to renovate their facilities, women may have to turn to dangerous "back alley and home abortions."

"Women need a safe and private place such as Planned Parenthood," she said.

Kathy Brown, executive director at the Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia, said the legislation would instead protect the safety of women seeking abortion by ensuring clinics comply with basic medical standards.

The political debate about abortion has taken center stage recently, but few have taken the time to evaluate the impact it will have on local communities such as Charlottesville, Semones said.

"You know, these regulations, targeting abortion providers is a trend across the nation," Semones said. "It is a backdoor attempt to shut down abortion providers."

Virginia ranks 23rd nationwide in terms of its rate of uninsured residents, according to the Virginia Health Care Foundation's website. Last year, 38 percent of all patients who visited clinics like Planned Parenthood were uninsured, according to the Foundation's website.

Semones said Planned Parenthood did not yet have a cost estimate for the required renovations for the Charlottesville center; however, she said the organization would have to cut some of its other resources to generate the funds to comply with building regulations.