Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Assault on rights

The state should not, in the guise of a legal technicality, further endanger the health of women in northwest Ohio

Ohio's assault on women’s reproductive rights comes not only from the General Assembly, but also from the attorney general’s office and the department of state government that is charged with protecting the public’s health.

Last week, Assistant Ohio Attorney General Lyndsay Nash effectively urged a hearing officer for the state Department of Health to recommend closing Capital Care Network in West Toledo. Her arguments, in a legal filing, included an unreasonably narrow interpretation of a state law that governs patient transfer agreements — a law crafted solely to close abortion clinics in Ohio.

A final recommendation from the hearing examiner to the health department is expected next month. To maintain medically safe abortions in northwest Ohio, especially for poor women, the department ought to recognize a new patient transfer agreement between Capital Care Network and the University of Michigan Health System. It’s more likely, though, that the courts will decide the fate of Capital Care, which is expected to mount a constitutional challenge to the state’s patient transfer law.

Capital Care’s closing would force even more women in northwest Ohio to travel to Detroit-area abortion clinics. Each month, an estimated 30 to 50 Ohio women visit Detroit-area clinics run by Northland Family Planning Centers.

Women without vehicles, or who can’t afford to travel, might pursue unsafe and illegal options, such as securing abortion drugs over the Internet. Using such drugs without medical supervision can risk a woman’s health, or even life.

As of last year, Ohio law requires transfer agreements for patients who need emergency treatment. It also prohibits clinics that perform abortions from forming patient-transfer agreements with a taxpayer-funded hospital.

Ohio is the first state to pass such a Draconian law. Center for Choice in Toledo closed last year because of it.

Also facing closure, Capital Care Network secured a transfer agreement with the University of Michigan hospital, 53 miles away. It was an arrangement the state practically forced Capital Care into making: In another attack on abortion rights, the University of Toledo Medical Center did not renew its transfer agreement with the clinic last year.

Although it is unusual, the patient transfer agreement between Capital Care Network and UM’s health system is legally sound. Out-of-state patient transfer agreements are not unprecedented.

Moreover, Ohio law does not specify what “local” means. A UM spokesman said the hospital considers Toledo part of its service area.

A transfer agreement with a Toledo hospital is not needed to protect a woman’s health. If an emergency occurs, no local hospital can refuse treatment to a patient.

Imminent emergencies are also extremely rare. Terrie Hubbard, the owner of Capital Care Network, has said she’s never had to make such a transfer in her four years as owner of the clinic.

Yet the attorney general’s office argues that the distance between the Toledo clinic and the Ann Arbor hospital “would frustrate the purposes of having a transfer agreement with a local hospital.” That argument ignores federal law that prohibits hospitals from turning away patients from their emergency rooms.

The real aim of the state law on transfer agreements is not to protect patient safety, but to close abortion clinics. In a partisan legislature, such duplicity is expected. But it’s inexcusable in the Department of Health.

If the state really believes this law is about safety, it should be flexible enough to recognize a clinic with a legitimate transfer agreement and a plan for emergencies. In an imminent emergency, Ms. Hubbard has said, Capital Care would call 911 and have the patient transferred to ProMedica’s Toledo Hospital.

The state should not, in the guise of a legal technicality, jeopardize the health of women in northwest Ohio by unduly restricting their access to a constitutionally protected medical procedure.

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