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GOP-led committee questions legality of granting privileges to Planned Parenthood doctor

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

The last time the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life met, members threatened to hold a Nixon administration official in contempt unless she produced documents identifying which hospital had a working relationship with Columbia's Planned Parenthood clinic.

That became a moot point when Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling sent the committee a letter stating that Colleen McNicholas, M.D., had received admitting privileges from University of Missouri Health Care.

McNicholas is a St. Louis physician who works with the Columbia clinic, which is operated by Planned Parenthood's Kansas and Mid-Missouri chapter.

Senate Republicans then spent Tuesday's hearing questioning whether state law was violated when McNicholas was granted admitting privileges.

The interim committee has been conducting hearings into Planned Parenthood's operations in Missouri following publicity generated by videos produced by an anti-abortion group. The group alleges that Planned Parenthood clinics in other states have been selling the remains of aborted fetuses to research companies.

Early in the hearing, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, accused the Department of Health of illegally granting admitting privileges to McNicholas.

"I think a lot of games have been played here, for sure by this department and I fear maybe by (UM Health Care), too," Onder said. "I think at (the) very least the document that specifies these 'refer and follow' privileges and define what they are -- that's been withheld from this committee."

Vasterling disagreed. She testified that both McNicholas and the clinic are properly licensed to perform medically induced abortions, but not surgical ones, which would require additional privileges.

Vasterling and Republicans on the committee are at odds over a state law requiring doctors who perform surgical abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, or for the clinic to have a similar agreement, to be licensed as an ambulatory surgical center. Vasterling said that since the Columbia clinic does not perform surgical abortions, McNicholas was granted 'refer and follow' privileges, enabling her to refer patients to UM Health care if needed.

The clinic in Columbia plans to begin surgical abortions next year.

Meanwhile, the University of Missouri could see its budget slashed next year because of UM Health Care's working relationship with the Planned Parenthood clinic. That is the implication from comments made by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who chairs both the Senate's appropriations committee and the Sanctity of Life interim committee.

"Public entities should be able to come into the General Assembly and stand before the public and justify how they're spending the public's money," Schaefer told reporters after the hearing. "When they come in here and basically tell us, 'Yeah, we're spending it in violation of state law, but that's just kind of what we did,' there probably has to be a pretty serious repercussion for that."

Schaefer is also seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri attorney general. Two other Republicans on the committee, Will Kraus of Lee's Summit and Eric Schmitt of Glendale, are also seeking statewide office next year. Kraus is running for secretary of state and Schmitt is running for state treasurer.

The interim committee has more hearings planned, but none will likely be scheduled before the legislature convenes for veto session on Sept. 16. Committee members are required to release a report with recommendations no later than Dec. 31, 2015.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.