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Richmond’s Planned Parenthood expands amid regulatory changes.

click to enlarge Paulette McElwain. who will lead a merged Planned Parenthood in Richmond, says she's hopeful about a vote to review controversial state regulations.

Scott Elmquist

Paulette McElwain. who will lead a merged Planned Parenthood in Richmond, says she's hopeful about a vote to review controversial state regulations.

One of the state’s largest abortion providers, based in Richmond, is merging with its counterpart in Hampton Roads while it grapples with controversial regulations.

The Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, which is based in Richmond, announced Monday that it was merging with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, which serves an area stretching from Hampton Roads to the North Carolina border. 

CEO Paulette McElwain, who will lead the merged organization from Richmond, says the move comes at a time when Planned Parenthood is increasing services while struggling under Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers.

The laws were supported by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli with the aim to put abortion clinics under hospital-grade restrictions. McElwain says Hampton Roads has lacked access to services since then, and the merger will help change that.

“It makes sense to move the ball forward in terms of getting health care to more people and being able to fight these fights more effectively,” she says. “We need to make sure we’re using our resources as wisely as possible so we’re not completely distracted by one or the other.”

The combined network of three health centers will serve more than 30,000 people a year, McElwain says, and includes reopening the Hampton Roads office that closed under the regulations.

That comes as a relief for Takindra Westbrook, a community organizer with Naral Pro-Choice Virginia, who began her activism with Planned Parenthood’s Hampton Roads affiliate. “It will be great to see other clinics opening up,” she says. “There will be larger access to Hampton Roads as a whole.”

Last week, the Virginia Board of Health voted 13-2 to re-examine those controversial regulations, following the appointment of several new members by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Westbrook, who spoke outside the meeting among groups supporting and opposing abortion restrictions, says the lack of services in Hampton Roads shows the progress that’s needed under a more supportive state administration.

“There are a lot of people now speaking up because they understand health care is at stake,” Westbrook says. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore.”

The board’s review of the regulations will take up to two years, with the first review set to conclude next month while the General Assembly session begins. McElwain says lawmakers such as Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, who spoke last week against altering the regulations, could slow the process.

“We’re facing a very hostile legislature, and that creates a lot of unknowns,” McElwain says. “But the Board of Health is looking at revamping the regulations so that they’re science-based. We’re looking for a process that’s based in science and facts and best practices rather than having ideology mixed in.”

McElwain says the expanded Planned Parenthood network will continue to expand services where it can, from sexual education to medical examinations.

“It was extraordinarily satisfying to have things move in this direction,” she says of last week’s vote. “In the meantime, we’re all subject to [the regulations] and we have to follow them — even though they’re ideologically driven.” S

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to McElwain as director of VLPP -- she is CEO.

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