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State investigating Little Rock abortion provider; virus spread at issue, governor says

Following rules, clinic lawyer replies by Frank E. Lockwood | April 9, 2020 at 6:42 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson is shown in this file photo.

The state is investigating whether a Little Rock abortion clinic is complying with coronavirus-related restrictions on nonessential medical services, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday.

Little Rock Family Planning Services is the subject of the inquiry, a state Department of Health spokeswoman later said.

"My understanding is ... that there are out-of-state people from Tennessee and other states that might be hot spots that are coming into that facility and that is a great concern," Hutchinson told reporters at the Capitol during his daily coronavirus news conference.

On Friday, the department issued a "directive on elective surgeries" to the state's health facilities, including abortion clinics.

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Among other things, it states: "Procedures, testing, and office visits that can be safely postponed shall be rescheduled to an appropriate future date."

Despite the order, the Little Rock clinic remains open and is serving clients from beyond Arkansas' borders, Hutchinson told reporters.

"The fact that people will be coming in from out of state during this time violates the direction that we're trying to go and the safety procedures we're trying to put into place, so that matter is under review and investigation by the Department of Health," Hutchinson added.

In order to "preserve staff, personal protective equipment (PPE), and patient care supplies; ensure staff and patient safety; and expand available hospital capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic," health facilities have been directed to postpone elective procedures, the department directive states.

In addition to limiting elective procedures, "routine dental and eye care visits" must also be postponed.

The clinic's office manager could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Its attorney, Bettina Brownstein, said her client is in compliance.

"All I can say is that Little Rock Family Planning Services is acting in the best interests of its patients and [demonstrating] care and concern for patients' health care and welfare, and we are abiding by the directives of the state," she said.

At Wednesday's briefing, state Health Secretary Nate Smith presented the long journeys as problematic.

"We are particularly concerned about out-of-state individuals coming in for procedures," he said. "In rural areas, that's not really an issue. In border counties, that's not an issue because we do understand people oftentimes do have to cross state lines to get needed, necessary care. ... But in these times, when we're trying to limit travel, limit the spread of covid-19, it really doesn't make sense for someone to come from another state to the middle of our state to get a procedure done that is not emergent or for an immediately life-threatening condition."

Asked about Texas' temporary ban on most abortions during the coronavirus emergency, Hutchinson said, "We have issued a very similar order -- in fact, almost identical order -- here in Arkansas that they issued in Texas."

The Texas order bans "nonessential" medical procedures due to the covid-19 emergency. That umbrella includes abortions that aren't necessary to protect the mother's life or health, officials there say.

That restriction was upheld this week by a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in a 2-1 ruling. Abortion providers want the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision, arguing it is an unconstitutional infringement of abortion rights.

Asked whether Arkansas clinics shouldn't be performing abortions unless necessary to protect the mother's life or health, Hutchinson did not offer further clarification.

Health care restrictions Wednesday were also on the mind of some state legislators.

In the fiscal session that started Wednesday, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, filed a resolution that if adopted by a two-thirds vote of both houses would allow him to introduce a non-appropriation bill that would prohibit elective procedures during the coronavirus emergency. No action was taken on the resolution Wednesday.

"The question is, what is the most effective way to eliminate elective procedures that utilize valuable personal protective equipment and expose Arkansans to individuals who may ... bring in new cases of the virus from out of state? This is an [issue] that is vitally important to the Governor, Legislature, and the Attorney General," Ballinger said in a text message. "Generally, we all value life, and so we are working hard to find the best tools to best protect our friends and neighbors. I am confident that we will find that solution."

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 04/09/2020

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