Topeka Kansas regulators on Friday revoked the medical license of a doctor accused of performing inadequate mental health exams on young patients she then referred to the late Dr. George Tiller for late-term abortions.
The State Board of Healing Arts ratified an administrative judge's earlier decision to strip Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus of her license. Neuhaus provided second opinions that Tiller needed under Kansas law to perform some late-term abortions at his Wichita clinic. Tiller, one of a few U.S. physicians known to perform abortions in the final weeks of pregnancy, was shot to death in May 2009 by a man professing strong anti-abortion views.
The administrative judge concluded in February that Neuhaus performed inadequate mental health exams in 2003 on 11 patients, aged 10 to 18. The judge said Neuhaus' records didn't contain the information necessary to show that she did thorough exams, and the patients' care was "seriously jeopardized."
"Her actions clearly show a disregard for her patients' safety and care, which causes her to be a threat to any future patients she might have," said Reese Hays, the attorney on the board's litigation team who presented the case against Neuhaus.
Neuhaus has argued that her exams met accepted standards of care, and some abortion rights supporters questioned whether she could receive a fair hearing from the board, with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, in office for almost 18 months. Neuhaus said she'll ask the state's courts to overturn the board's decision.
"It's all about abortion rights, absolutely," she said after the board's decision. "If this wasn't in the Bible Belt, I think this wouldn't even be happening."
Abortion opponents have been a force in the Republican Party in GOP-leaning Kansas for two decades and have solid legislative majorities. Since Brownback took office in January 2011, the state has imposed tighter restrictions on abortion, written special health and safety rules for abortion providers and limited private health insurance coverage for elective abortions.
Neuhaus, who is from Nortonville, a small town about 30 miles north of Lawrence, has an inactive medical license that allows her to provide limited charity care, but she had asked the board to reinstate her to a full, active license. The revocation will formally take effect when the board puts its decision in writing and delivers a copy to Neuhaus, possibly next week.
The board discussed her case in closed sessions for about 30 minutes before reconvening to formally revoke her license as Neuhaus and her attorneys watched. Sitting behind her was Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which pursued a complaint against her.
The case centered on how Neuhaus concluded that each of the 11 patients had serious mental health issues and that an abortion was advisable. The law required Tiller to obtain an independent second opinion that a patient faced significant and permanent harm if the pregnancy continued. Neuhaus provided such assessments for Tiller from 1999 to 2006.
Neuhaus' reports for him, 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."
Neuhaus strongly disputes the judge's characterization of how she used the program and testified during a hearing that she sometimes refused to allow abortions to go forward.
She also testified that she didn't put more details in her records to protect patients' privacy. After the hearing, she said she was "unapologetic" for that, noting the Kansas attorney general's office began investigating abortion providers, including Tiller, starting early in 2003, and in 2006, Fox television's Bill O'Reilly strongly criticized Tiller and discussed a few of his patients' cases on his program.
The case stemmed from a 2006 complaint by Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue. The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life also had scrutinized Neuhaus for years and raised questions about her activities. Newman said after the hearing that the board's decision "was justified, and this is only on 11 records, not on the countless others she did the exact same thing for."
Neuhaus had performed abortions in Wichita and Lawrence but stopped in 2002. When she provided second opinions for Tiller, Kansas law restricted abortions at or after the 22nd week of pregnancy if the fetus was viable. In those cases, pregnancies could be terminated only if the patient faced 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.
Tiller once faced misdemeanor criminal charges that alleged, in relying on Neuhaus for referrals, that 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.