The Austin Chronicle

More HB 2 Fallout: Abortion Doctors Sue Dallas Hospital

By Jordan Smith, April 17, 2014, 4:00pm, Newsdesk

For more than 30 years, obstetricians Lamar Robinson and Jasbir Ahluwalia provided legal abortion care at licensed women's clinics. And after the legislature last year passed House Bill 2, requiring that all abortion doctors receive hospital admitting privileges, the doctors sought and received privileges at University General Hospital Dallas.

That is, until March 31, when the hospital revoked their privileges.

According to a letter sent to each doctor, the hospital had "determined that your practice of performing these procedures is disruptive to the business and reputation of UGHD" and violates a hospital bylaw banning "disruptive behavior" that includes behavior that "adversely impacts, or potentially may impact, the operation of the Hospital" or that creates a "hostile work environment."

But Texas law also explicitly prohibits hospitals from denying privileges to doctors based on their willingness to provide abortion care. According to the state's Occupations Code, a hospital "may not discriminate against a physician" either for refusing to "perform of participate in an abortion procedure," or because of a doctor's "willingness to participate in an abortion procedure at another facility." As such, Robinson and Ahluwalia today filed suit in Dallas County, asking the court to block the hospital from denying the doctors privileges that they are otherwise qualified for and had already received. And this afternoon, a Dallas judge entered a temporary restraining order, blocking, for the time being, the hospital's actions.

In the wake of the passage of HB 2, abortion providers – including Robinson and Ahluwalia – last fall filed suit in federal court, seeking to block the admitting-privileges provision, arguing that it was unnecessary and created an unconstitutional undue burden on women seeking abortion. In part, the providers argued that the admitting-privileges provision would be difficult to comply with, even for the most qualified doctors, because each hospital creates its own unique credentialing process. The state countered that there was no reason to believe that the doctors could not secure privileges simply because they provide abortions; Texas law prohibits that, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's team of attorneys repeatedly emphasized.

Still, it appears that has not deterred UGHD from revoking privileges for Robinson and Ahluwalia, specifically based on their providing legal abortion care to women in North Texas. "It has come to our attention that you perform 'voluntary interruption of pregnancies' as a part of your regular medical practice," UGHD CEO Chuck Schuetz wrote in a letter sent to each doctor. And that willingness to provide abortion care violates UGHD's bylaws "because, among other things, the practice creates significant exposure and damages to UGHD's reputation within the community. UGHD cannot afford to defend your privileges in light of this practice."

The revocation of privileges means the doctors are unable to provide any abortion services. According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of the doctors by lawyers with New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, the hospital knew that the doctors provided abortion care as part of their broader medical practice and "intentionally acted to sever its ties with Plaintiffs and to prevent them from carrying on their clinical practices and providing abortion elsewhere." Indeed, the lawsuit alleges that UGHD sought to revoke the privileges because the hospital in March was targeted by anti-abortion protesters, who contacted the hospital and "demanded" that it revoke the doctors' privileges. "On information and belief, the hospital was threatened with an April 1, 2014 protest outside its Dallas facility if it refused to give in to the activists' demands," reads the suit. Thus, the suit alleges, Schuetz penned the March 31 letter revoking the doctors' privileges.

It would seem Schuetz and UGHD are attempting to avoid Texas' anti-discrimination law by also claiming that the privileges must be revoked because UGHD doesn't provide obstetric services in it's "scope of services" and as such "does not have the capacity to treat complications that may arise from voluntary interruption of pregnancies." Still, according to the UGHD website, a "Women's Center" is in the works. Moreover, the lawsuit notes, HB 2 does not require that doctors have privileges at a hospital that specifically provides obstetric care; indeed, many hospitals in Texas do not provide such care – another argument the abortion providers cited during last fall's trial in support of their position that the admitting-privileges provision was crafted with politics and not women's health in mind.

"There is no legitimate non-discriminatory explanation for UGHD's revocation of Plaintiff's privileges," reads the suit.

UGHD's public relations manager could not be reached for comment, nor did the hospital immediately respond to a request for information about the decision to revoke the doctors' privileges. This afternoon's temporary restraining order blocks the hospital from enforcing its decision until the case can be fully considered by the court.

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