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Troubled Latrobe abortion clinic faces scrutiny, legislative interest

051513-latrobe-reopensPro-life bills stalled in Legislature

CHARLOTTE — Two North Carolina legislators are looking into recent problems at A Preferred Women's Health Center in Charlotte and hope public attention can push forward pro-life legislation that has stalled in various legislative committees.

The abortion facility at 3220 Latrobe Drive was shut down May 10 after state health inspectors found that the facility was improperly administering chemical abortions, among other health code violations. State regulators allowed the Latrobe clinic to reopen five days later after its medical director submitted a notarized affidavit stating that the problems had been corrected.

Latrobe has a history of health code violations. State regulators have documented more than 40 problems inside the Latrobe clinic at least six different times over the past 14 years. Latrobe's brief closing last month, and a similar closing in 2007, are the only times when state regulators have closed an abortion clinic in nearly two decades.

Pictured: People prayed outside A Preferred Women's Health Center as it reopened May 15. More than 15 pro-life advocates were out there again on May 18 -- a Saturday, which is one of the busiest days of the week for the abortion clinic. (Photo by Patricia L. Guilfoyle, Catholic News Herald)

A series of bills already introduced in the N.C. General Assembly would add to existing regulations for abortion clinics, but the bills remain in various House and Senate committees:

— House Bill 716 would ban abortions based on the unborn child's gender.

— House Bill 730 would extend conscience protections to nurses and other health care providers who object to offering abortions. Currently, the protection covers only physicians. It would also limit abortion funding under health insurance plans through the federal health insurance exchange or by local governments.

— Senate Bill 132 would require the state's public school health education curriculum to mention abortion as a preventable risk for later premature births.

— The largest piece of legislation – Senate Bill 308 – did not make it past an internal legislative deadline, so the bill is dead for this year unless supporters can attach it to another piece of proposed legislation.

This bill, amending the Woman's Right to Know Act, would: require abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of their abortion facility; require that an abortionist be physically present throughout the abortion procedure and during the patient's recovery at the abortion facility; and list on the state's website resources for women to seek help in cases of poor prenatal diagnoses.

This bill could particularly address problems like those reported at Latrobe: Both of its abortionists do not have hospital admitting privileges nearby, and Latrobe has been cited multiple times for not providing patients with adequate medical supervision after abortions.

Staffers for Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke and Cleveland counties) and Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake County) said they hope all the legislation can still pass, although the legislative session is winding down.

Rep. Stam said through a spokeswoman that he remains "cautiously optimistic" that all of the pro-life bills will pass the legislature before the session ends early this summer.

North Carolina's two Catholic bishops, Bishop Peter Jugis and Bishop Michael Burbidge, support the pro-life legislation. People are encouraged to contact their legislators to urge them to pass these bills, said David Hains, director of Catholic Voice North Carolina, the public policy arm of the state's two Catholic bishops.

HEALTH REGULATORS UNDER REVIEW

Meanwhile, staffers in both Stam's and Daniel's offices have been researching the actions of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources, after constituents contacted them in response to the Catholic News Herald's coverage of Latrobe's problems. They said they are trying to learn more about what the current regulations for abortion clinics are, whether enforcement needs to be strengthened, and what new regulations, if any, might be needed.

Daniel's office requested copies of all the inspection reports for all of the state's abortion clinics dating back to 2008. They are now going through the box load of documents, studying the state health department's actions in those inspections. It appears, his staff said, as if the cycle of repeat violations found at Latrobe is not unusual.

They are also "trying to get answers" from the N.C. Medical Board about the ethical considerations related to patient care, such as off-label use of medication, his staff said.

CLINIC REMAINS UNDER SCRUTINY

020313-abortionmapState health department spokesman Ricky Diaz said the Latrobe clinic is being closely watched after state inspections of the facility in April and also in December 2012 uncovered numerous problems.

Besides continued monitoring from the state health department, another agency that could investigate Latrobe after its reported problems is the North Carolina Medial Board, which licenses all of the doctors in the state.

The board relies on many sources to investigate possible cases of medical malpractice, including patient complaints, government regulators and media reports, said Jean Fisher Brinkley, public affairs director for the medical board.

In 2012 the medical board conducted about 2,500 investigations; 192 of those resulted in disciplinary action, Brinkley said.

However, the state health department is not required to notify the medical board if it uncovers possible medical malpractice, she noted. State regulators use their best judgment in deciding whether to alert the medical board, she said, and without a specific complaint the medical board's 10 investigators across the state cannot easily act

Brinkley said the medical board reviews every complaint it gets, but it relies on others to alert them to possible problems. "We're a complaint-driven organization," she said.

The medical board has not gotten many reports from the state health department, she said. "It's not frequent."

Diaz said the state health department does communicate with the medical board. "If concerns are identified related to medical practice, referrals are made to the appropriate licensing agencies," he said.

Latrobe is also a member of the National Abortion Federation, a trade group that states on its website it "sets the standards for abortion care in the U.S. and Canada" and it inspects its members through "periodic quality assurance site visits."

A NAF spokeswoman has not return several calls inquiring about whether it had inspected Latrobe or followed up with state regulators to ensure that Latrobe abides by its membership criteria.

DOCTORS AT LATROBE

The Latrobe clinic is part of a chain of three abortion facilities, with locations also in Raleigh and in Augusta, Ga. The for-profit company's website estimates its staff has performed abortions on more than 100,000 women over the past 20 years with abortions costing $330 and up.

The Latrobe clinic alone performed 4,220 abortions from Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, it reported on its license renewal application in 2013 – the most of any of Charlotte's three abortion clinics.

Dr. Stuart Lee Schnider, Latrobe's medical director and husband of the clinic's owner and CEO, Lois Turner-Schnider, was sued for medical malpractice in 1997. During an abortion performed by Dr. Schnider in 1994, a woman "incurred severe damage to her uterus and bowel that caused excessive hemorrhaging," according to court documents. She had to have a total hysterectomy as a result of the botched abortion.

Schnider, 59, has been licensed in North Carolina since 1987, and the N.C. Medical Board shows no disciplinary action taken against him.

The other abortionist at Latrobe, Dr. Jimmie Isaac Newton, 74, works as an independent contractor and was first licensed by the N.C. Medical Board in 1964.

Newton surrendered his medical license in 2002 during an investigation involving sexual misconduct with patients at his Winston-Salem OB-GYN clinic.

According to documents from the N.C. Medical Board's investigation, in 2001 and 2002 Newton admitted to having "made inappropriate sexual comments" to two patients and attempting to solicit for oral sex.

About a year later, the medical board reinstated Newton's medical license after he showed that he was receiving "treatment for his sexual misconduct," the medical board documents stated.

Neither Schnider nor Newton have admitting privileges at local hospitals, according to the medical board.

— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor