- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Abortion clinics in South Carolina could pay hundreds more annually for inspections, as the state’s public health agency seeks to make fees cover its costs.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control will pursue increasing fees through regulatory changes, said Shelly Kelly, the agency’s director of health regulation. Proposed changes will go to the Legislature for review.

“We’ll do a careful analysis of the cost,” she told a House Oversight panel Tuesday.

The panel is investigating state agencies’ interactions with the three clinics in South Carolina that provide abortions. Kelly’s presentation followed questions at the Nov. 12 hearing about inspection costs.

Routine inspection fees currently fall short by more than $1,400 per clinic, Kelly said.



The agency’s estimated costs include mileage, meals and lodging for the two inspectors when they travel to clinics in Charleston and Greenville.

Currently, the clinics pay $350 for annual inspections, plus $25 per procedure room. The agency charges an additional $200 base fee for any follow-up inspection, plus the $25 per room.

DHEC’s costs have increased as the agency stepped up inspections after the Legislative Audit Council found earlier this year the agency hadn’t consistently inspected the clinics. Added scrutiny includes adding an inspector and reviewing more files, Kelly said.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood declined to comment on a potential fee hike. Of the three clinics that provide abortions, the organization operates only the one in Columbia.

The House Oversight review is among several launched by Republicans in South Carolina following the release last summer of secretly taped videos showing Planned Parenthood officials in other states discussing the collection of fetal organs for research.

Planned Parenthood officials have repeatedly said none of the organization’s clinics in the South Atlantic region - which includes the Carolinas - participates in fetal tissue collection.

But six House Republicans requested a separate House review, which was approved by a party-line vote in August after an emotional plea.

Democrats on the panel said Tuesday the months-long investigation has wasted agencies’ time and taxpayers’ money, while showing that claims of criminal activity were false.

The panel has found no evidence of taxpayer money being illegally spent on abortions.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the panel should no longer launch investigations without evidence.

“All the fearmongering and rhetoric has shown to be devoid of any credit or value whatsoever,” he said. “The undeniable conclusions are basically there’s nothing here of anything criminal.”

The panel’s chairman, GOP Rep. Gary Clary, said he wondered about the precedent being set but voted to “fully investigate this because it’s such an emotional issue” both in the state and nationally. He believes the GOP-requested investigations were useful in improving DHEC’s inspections.

The panel will vote on any recommendations at its next meeting in January.

“While we’ve spent a fair amount of time and spent state resources on conducting this investigation, we’re reaching the end of the road,” said Clary, R-Clemson.

At the request of Rep. Mia McLeod, the panel held a moment of silence for the victims of last Friday’s shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“That easily could have happened here,” said McLeod, D-Columbia.

Robert Dear, a 57-year-old former South Carolina resident, is accused of opening fire at the clinic, killing three people and injuring nine others. Colorado Springs police have declined to disclose any information on his motive.

But McLeod said she believes it’s because of the political debate.

“The rhetoric is the reason we’re here,” she said, calling the House investigation a “witch hunt.”

In August, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley asked DHEC to investigate the clinics. Less than a month later, the agency suspended the licenses of two of the clinics and fined them a combined $10,250 - the first fines levied since at least 2010. Ultimately, sanctions were lifted and neither had to close.

Kelly told the panel Tuesday additional fines that could amount to nearly $51,000 are still under negotiation.

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