Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned her position Thursday over controversial abortion clinic regulations that have been a political lightning rod since the General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 directing the Board of Health to craft them.
In a one-page letter, Dr. Remley thanked Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, for the opportunity to serve in the administration. But she wrote that the controversy surrounding new hospital-like building regulations for most of the state's existing abortion clinics has tied her hands.
"Unfortunately, how specific sections of the Virginia Code pertaining to the development and enforcement of those regulations have been and continue to be interpreted has created an environment in which my abilities to fulfill my duties is compromised and in good faith I can no longer serve in my role," wrote Dr. Remley. "I have submitted my resignation from the position from State Health Commissioner effective today."
Dr. Remley, who was first appointed by Mr. McDonnell's Democratic predecessor Tim Kaine, also wrote that she pledged to Mr. McDonnell that she would lower abortion rates in the state "by both the application of evidence based approaches and also the thoughtful implementation of abortion regulations if authorized to do so by the General Assembly and signed into law by yourself."
"I have honored those commitments on both accounts," she wrote, noting that all 20 of the state's abortion facilities that are eligible for licensing will be fully licensed for the coming year within the next few days.
In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law directing the Board of Health to promulgate hospital-like regulations for abortion clinics performing five or more first-trimester abortions per month. Opponents of the law claimed the regulations would force a majority of the clinics to close, while advocates of the law said they were simply intended to provide the safest possible environment for women. Last fall, the board approved temporary regulations that are currently in effect.
But in approving permanent rules, the board reversed course earlier this year — against the advice of the office of Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II — by effectively grandfathering existing facilities to automatic compliance with the new rules.
Mr. Cuccinelli would not certify those regulations, and so the board passed them again without the exemptions.
Dr. Remley highlighted the successes of her years in the department.
"I continue to have a passion for public health and the future of health care in the commonwealth and will pursue opportunities to improve the health of all Virginians through different ventures," she wrote. "I will greatly and sincerely miss the VDH team of 4,000 colleagues who have inspired me and who work diligently every day to promote the public health in Virginia."
In a statement, Mr. McDonnell said he greatly appreciates Dr. Remley's "tremendous public service" over the last four years.
"As Commissioner she served two governors from two different parties, and all the citizens of Virginia, with constant professionalism, intellect and dedication," he said. "She was a tireless public servant, and we will miss her in the Administration. I wish Dr. Remley the very best moving forward, and know she will continue to play a leading role in healthcare in Virginia in the years ahead."
Dr. Maureen Dempsey, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Health and the former director of the Missouri State Department of Health and Senior Services, will serve as interim Commissioner.
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