- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control hasn’t consistently inspected the state’s three licensed abortion clinics as required by law, which could result in serious problems for patients, auditors reported Wednesday.

The Legislative Audit Council said in a report that DHEC provided auditors with records for only 33 of the 42 inspections that should have been conducted from 2001 to 2014 at the three clinics in Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville.

The council also found that, with the exception of an expired license, DHEC imposed no penalties for violations, including for repeat violations such as expired medications and failure to properly dispose of medications, which could have brought fines of up to $1,000 on a second offense. Auditors suggested DHEC enforce a system of graduated penalties if repeat violations are found.

In response, DHEC said it submitted more reports - 36 of 42 - than auditors gave it credit for. The department also said quality control efforts are underway and the council’s report amounted to a “snapshot of a work in progress,” and not a complete assessment of its multiyear improvement plan.

DHEC is required by law to inspect each clinic annually. The report noted that 5,640 abortions took place at the three clinics in 2014, which represented 99 percent of all abortions in the state.

“DHEC just needs to tighten up the program a little bit,” LAC Deputy Director Marcia Lindsay said.

Beyond the lack of inspection records, Lindsay pointed to the small sample of patients used in inspections. As few as three patient files were reviewed for each clinic.

“We don’t feel that’s a sufficient sample to determine compliance,” she said.

Auditors also recommended that the Legislature require ultrasounds before all abortions to determine the age of the fetus. The state bars clinics from performing an abortion if a fetus is older than 14 weeks.

House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, who has sponsored anti-abortion legislation for years, said he’s not opposed to requiring ultrasounds but that it’s not really an issue.

“Abortion clinics already do it for their own benefit to protect themselves from being sued,” said Delleney, R-Chester, who was among the nine House members who requested the audit.

Delleney said the report shows what he expected - “that DHEC is not enforcing regulations.”

Lindsay said that although performing ultrasounds might be general practice in South Carolina, “it’s not required. They need to require it in writing and have DHEC check for it in inspections.”

Auditors also said DHEC should improve the mechanism for lodging complaints about clinics, including offering a toll-free hotline as other states in the region do.

“We found shortcomings that could, if not addressed, result in serious problems for patients,” the council said in its report.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which runs the Columbia clinic, called the LAC report “another example of governmental interference and overreach.”

“Abortion is already one of the most heavily regulated medical procedures in the country,” said Alyssa Miller with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “It’s just a politicized attempt to chip away at access.”

The report comes amid the Legislature’s latest efforts to limit abortion. The Senate has given special debate status to a bill banning abortions after 19 weeks, which affects abortions performed in hospitals. The priority status guarantees the Senate will debate the bill after wrapping up work on its budget plan, but it doesn’t guarantee passage.

The bill, which has already passed the House, could bog down the Senate for the rest of the legislative session, which has only 13 days left.

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Associated Press reporter Susanne M. Schafer contributed to this report.


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