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AHCA fines clinic $193,000 over abortion rule - triple the judge's recommendation

Agency For Health Care Administration
Agency For Health Care Administration

The law requires women to receive information from doctors about abortions and then wait at least 24 hours before having the procedures. An Orlando clinic was found noncompliant 193 times.

Health regulators Monday ordered an Orlando abortion clinic to pay a $193,000 fine for violating a law that requires women to wait 24 hours before having abortions, nearly three times the fine recommended by an administrative law judge.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration issued a final order requiring the Center of Orlando for Women to pay a $1,000 fine for each of 193 violations shortly after the law took effect in April 2022.

Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper this spring issued a recommended order that said the clinic should pay a $67,550 fine — $350 for each violation. But under administrative law, the recommended order had to go to AHCA for a final decision.

Monday’s final order, signed by AHCA Secretary Jason Weida, said “the record is devoid of any reasons why respondent (the clinic) could not comply with the law prior to May 9, 2022, which was the date it first began complying with it.”

In a document filed in March at the state Division of Administrative Hearings, an attorney for the clinic proposed paying a $19,300 fine — $100 for each violation — and said a $193,000 fine “would likely force the clinic into bankruptcy or closure.”

The case was one of a series of similar efforts by the agency to fine clinics for not complying with the waiting-period law in the weeks after it took effect.

The Legislature passed the waiting-period requirement in 2015. But the law spurred a lengthy court fight and did not take effect until April 25, 2022, when Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey entered a final judgment upholding it.

The law requires women to receive information from doctors about abortions and then wait at least 24 hours before having the procedures.

Regulators filed a series of cases after inspecting records about compliance with the law following Dempsey’s ruling. In the Orlando clinic’s case, the agency alleged that 193 abortions were performed at the facility from April 26, 2022, to May 7, 2022, without 24-hour waiting periods. State law allows the agency to collect a maximum of $1,000 for each violation of the law.

In filings at the Division of Administrative Hearings, the Orlando clinic said it repeatedly sought clarification from AHCA in April 2022 and early May 2022 about when the law would take effect but did not receive information.

“Respondent (the clinic) took necessary and reasonable steps to discover the effective date of 24-hour requirement so that it would be in compliance,” the document filed in March by the clinic’s lawyer said. “Short of being involved in the litigation (which it was not), there were not more options available to discover the effective date beyond what the clinic did. Contacting AHCA for information (not legal advice) about the effective date of the 24-hour requirement was a logical and appropriate thing to do.”

In his recommended order calling for a $67,500 fine, Culpepper pointed to “certain extenuating and mitigating facts that should be considered when assessing the gravity of the Center's violation … and in turn, the appropriate and reasonable fine to levy upon the Center.”

But Monday’s final order by AHCA said, for example, that the clinic’s “office manager admitted she knew about the law, yet did not change respondent's operating procedures to comply with it.”

The agency has reached smaller settlements with other clinics it accused of violating the waiting-period law. For instance, orders filed in July said it reached $20,000 settlements with two Miami-Dade County clinics. At least some of the cases centered on whether clinics had properly documented compliance with the waiting-period law.

Copyright 2023 Health News Florida

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.