Topeka — A Kansas doctor faces a crucial court hearing this week in her fight to regain her medical license and overturn a regulatory board’s finding that she performed inadequate mental health exams before referring young patients to the late Dr. George Tiller for late-term abortions.
Attorneys for both Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus and the State Board of Healing Arts expect Friday’s hearing in Shawnee County District Court to be the final one before Judge Franklin Theis rules. Neuhaus is appealing the board’s revocation of her license a year ago, a decision preventing her from providing even charity care.
Neuhaus, formerly of Lawrence, and her attorneys argue the revocation is the result of a long-standing campaign by abortion opponents to limit access to abortion. Neuhaus provided second opinions that Tiller needed under Kansas law to perform late-term abortions at his Wichita clinic, and the board’s case against Neuhaus stemmed from an anti-abortion leader’s complaint.
Bob Eye, one of Neuhaus’ attorneys, said absent abortion, “I doubt there would have even been a complaint.”
The 55-year-old Neuhaus gained national attention over her association with Tiller. He was among a few U.S. physicians known to perform abortions in the final weeks of pregnancy and was shot to death in May 2009 by a man professing strong anti-abortion views.
Abortion opponents believed Neuhaus helped Tiller circumvent state restrictions on late-term abortions by certifying that potential patients’ mental health problems were serious enough to warrant terminating their pregnancies. The board agreed with an administrative judge that Neuhaus had “seriously jeopardized” patients’ care with inadequate mental health exams from 1999 to 2006. One board attorney argued that Neuhaus had disregarded patient safety.
“The decision of the board should be upheld,” Kelli Stevens, the board’s general counsel, said last week.
For years, anti-abortion group Kansans for Life raised questions about Neuhaus’ activities, including her association with Tiller. Neuhaus, from Nortonville, a small town about 30 miles north of Lawrence, also performed abortions until 2002.
Starting in 2009, as she pursued a master’s degree in public health, Neuhaus had an inactive medical license that allowed her to provide limited charity care. When hearings in her case began in 2011, she asked the board to reinstate her full, active license.
The board, however, took away her inactive license last July over concerns about the exams in 2003 on 11 patients aged 10 to 18.
In 2003, 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.
Neuhaus’ reports on the 11 patients, compiled with a “PsychManager Lite” computer program, were five pages or less and didn’t cite details from patients’ statements or data gleaned from her exams.
The administrative judge hearing the case for the board said 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 board’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. The Kansas attorney general’s office began investigating abortion providers, including Tiller, early in 2003. In 2006, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly strongly criticized Tiller and discussed a few of his patients’ cases on his cable-news talk show.
Also in 2006, Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, filed the complaint leading to the board’s action against Neuhaus.
“Nobody wants women subjected to quackery,” Sullenger said.
Tiller faced misdemeanor criminal charges from 2007 to 2009, alleging that, 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, a separate complaint was pending before the Board of Healing Arts.
In 2011, shortly before the board acted against Neuhaus, Kansas legislators tightened state law on late-term abortions so it no longer included the mental health exception.
Neuhaus argues her mental health exams met accepted standards of care and notes that none of the patients involved complained to the board.
“The fact is, there’s been no harm, and they couldn’t show there was any harm,” Eye said. “The complaint came from the anti-choice clique.”