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Loss of license ordered in Kansas abortion-referrals case

A state administrative judge has ordered the revocation of a Kansas doctor's license over her referrals of young patients to the late Dr. George Tiller for late-term abortions.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A state administrative judge has ordered the revocation of a Kansas doctor's license over her referrals of young patients to the late Dr. George Tiller for late-term abortions, concluding their care was "seriously jeopardized" by inadequate mental health examinations.

In an order that became public Tuesday, the judge said Dr. Ann Kristen Neuhaus failed to meet accepted standards of care in performing exams on 11 patients, ages 10 to 18, who had late-term abortions at Tiller's clinic in Wichita from July to November 2003. The judge said Neuhaus' records did not contain the information necessary to show she did thorough exams.

Tiller needed an opinion from another doctor to terminate the pregnancies because Kansas law restricted late-term abortions at the time. Neuhaus said each patient's mental health issues were serious enough to allow each procedure to go forward.

Neuhaus, from Nortonville, a small town about 30 miles north of Lawrence, doesn't have an active medical practice, but her license allows her to provide limited charity care, and she's seeking to make it fully active again. It wasn't clear Tuesday how quickly she'd have to stop providing charity care under Judge Ed Gaschler's order.

The order must be reviewed by the State Board of Healing Arts, which licenses and regulates physicians, most likely at an April 13 meeting. If the board makes Gaschler's order final, Neuhaus still could file a legal challenge in state district court.

"We are in the process of reviewing the order and whether an appeal is advisable," said Bob Eye, a Topeka attorney representing Neuhaus.

Gaschler heard evidence on a complaint filed by the Board of Healing Arts' top litigation attorney in April 2010. The case centered on how Neuhaus reached her conclusions and whether she adequately documented the reasons behind each diagnosis. Her reports, compiled with a "PsychManager Lite" computer program, were five pages or less and don't cite details from patients' statements or data gleaned from her exams.

The administrative judge said that in some cases, the young patients were described as suicidal, but Neuhaus didn't recommend further treatment. The judge said Neuhaus simply "answered yes/no questions" using the computer program and assigned whatever diagnosis "the computer gave."

"The care and treatment of the 11 patients in question was seriously jeopardized by the Licensee's care," Gaschler wrote.

But Julie Burkhart, a former Tiller employee and founder of the abortion-rights group Trust Women, questioned whether Neuhaus' case was handled fairly and whether Neuhaus can receive a fair hearing from the Board of Healing Arts, with Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, in office. Burkhart said Neuhaus is a target for anti-abortion officials.

"There's a political agenda here, and it seems that Dr. Neuhaus is the one who can be brought before the board and punished," Burkhart said after reviewing the order. "The agenda is to discredit her."

Gaschler signed the order and mailed it to the parties Friday. It became public Tuesday when the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue obtained a copy and posted it online.

The board's executive director, Kathleen Selzler Lippert, confirmed the authenticity of the posting but declined to comment because the board hasn't reviewed Gaschler's order.

The case initially stemmed from a complaint lodged in 2006 by Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, but abortion opponents had scrutinized Neuhaus' activities for years. Neuhaus performed abortions herself in Wichita and Lawrence but stopped in 2002.

She provided second opinions for Tiller from 1999 through 2006, when Kansas law restricted abortions starting at the 22nd week of pregnancy, if the fetus was viable. A patient had to face death or "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," including mental health. Legislators tightened the law last year so that it no longer includes the mental health exception.

"It was just a sham," Sullenger said, who praised Gaschler's order and described Neuhaus' as helping Tiller in "circumventing the law."

Tiller was among a few U.S. physicians performing late-term abortions and was shot to death in May 2009 by a man professing strong anti-abortion beliefs.

Tiller once faced misdemeanor criminal charges that alleged, in relying on Neuhaus for referrals, he wasn't getting the independent second medical opinion required by state law. He was acquitted two months before his murder, but at the time of his death, a separate complaint was pending before the Board of Healing Arts.

During her hearing, Neuhaus testified that she sometimes told patients they couldn't obtain abortions from Tiller, upsetting them.

But the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life said Gaschler reviewed "crushing evidence" against Neuhaus.

"There's no way that any fair-minded person could come to any other conclusion," said Mary Kay Culp, the group's executive director.