WV Senator amends telemedicine bill to restrict access to abortion

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail file photo

With a little more than a week to go, a second bill to restrict access to abortion is moving in the West Virginia Legislature.

The first, House Bill 2002, would originally have prohibited physicians from waiving parental notification in adolescent abortions and required minors to go to court for abortion access. That bill, later amended to allow psychologists and psychiatrists to waive parental notification, passed the House of Delegates in that form and is awaiting consideration in the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee.

The latest bill, House Bill 2509, started out as a telemedicine bill. Mark Drennan, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association, said they had requested the bill because telemedicine legislation passed last year prevented mental health care providers from prescribing ADHD drugs via telemedicine. The bill passed the House of Delegates earlier this month.

By Thursday morning, the bill contained a new provision aimed at restricting access to abortion.

“The majority of people in leadership in the House and Senate made it clear they wanted to focus on jobs, education and the economy, and they specifically did not want to get mired into the politics of divisive issues like abortions,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, “and yet here we are, with not one but two abortion bills moving in the last two weeks of session. I’ve been lobbying for 15 years, and I can’t think of a time there has been two abortion bills.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, introduced amendments during the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting that would prevent doctors from prescribing, via telemedicine, any drugs with the intent of causing an abortion.

“I don’t believe that type of drug should be given without a one-on-one, face[-to-face] encounter,” said Rucker, who did not return a call Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, asked if the amendment was germane. After some discussion, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan and the Senate Judiciary chairman, ruled that it was.

In a voice vote, senators approved the amendment, then later approved the bill to be sent to the full Senate for a vote.

“We told our members it’s kind of a rider on this bill,” Drennan said. “It was not relevant for our purposes, and surprising to us.”

As the use of telemedicine has increased in recent years, Chapman Pomponio had hoped that reproductive health care providers would begin taking advantage of the technology. She wasn’t aware of any reproductive health care providers currently planning to begin using telemedicine, but said the goal became more important when the Kanawha Surgicenter in Charleston closed, leaving the state with only one abortion provider.

“As advocates in the women’s health community, we’re always looking for ways to expand access to reproductive health care,” she said, “and telemedicine is a wonderful new opportunity to bring care to rural communities and women around the state who can’t make it to Charleston for reproductive health care.”

“They seem so driven to take options and even the possibility of options away from the women of West Virginia,” she added.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes legislation that creates barriers to abortion access and interferes with the patient-provider relationship, including telemedicine bans and medication abortion restrictions, noting that laws banning abortion access via telemedicine have a disproportionate impact on rural women.

“We can do so many things with telemedicine, in particular in West Virginia,” said Dr. Coy Flowers, vice chairman of the West Virginia Section of the American Congress of Obstretricians and Gynecologists, and vice chairman of the West Virginia State Medical Association. “We need that to be able to ensure men, women and children get equal access to care. It’s unfortunate that Senator Rucker is trying to disadvantage primarily poor, rural West Virginia women by trying to limit full access to reproductive health care.”

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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