Oklahoma programs geared to prevent teenage pregnancy will lose millions in annual federal grants following the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding to programs nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is ending the federal grants, leaving three Oklahoma organizations unsure of the future of programs aiming to prevent teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Youth Services of Tulsa, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department were awarded five-year grants in 2015 but recently received letters stating the funding would end in June 2018 — two years early.
The federal grants provide the organizations about $3.8 million annually to implement evidence-based programs to reduce the state’s teen birthrate. Oklahoma organizations will lose nearly $8 million because of the cuts.
Sharon Rodine, director of Youth Initiatives at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said the cuts are “very concerning,” and the fact that they were announced before Congress even passed a FY2018 budget is “unprecedented.”
At the same time, there is limited effective teenage pregnancy prevention happening in Oklahoma outside of the federally-funded programs, she said.
“It’s about the only funding source we (Oklahoma) have right now,” Rodine said of the cuts to teenage pregnancy prevention. “We’re the second-highest state in teenage birthrates. …Other states are investing in prevention and we are not.”
Though teenage births in Oklahoma have fallen by 26 percent since 2012, Oklahoma still remains second in the nation for the highest teen birth rate. In 2014, 4,802 teenagers gave birth in Oklahoma. Most teen births — 73 percent — were to women ages 18 to 19.
More than one-third of all teen births in the state happen in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, and both counties have zip codes with some of the highest teen birth rates in the state, Rodine said.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Rodine said of the cuts. “Why would we do this? We’re cutting initiatives that have shown significant decreases in birth rates over five years.
“We have great, strong collaboratives in metro areas.”
In Tulsa, the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Youth Services of Tulsa and the Community Service Council form a collaboration to work with 30 partners across the city in an effort to educate youth on relationships, healthcare and how to make responsible decisions.
That partnership includes outreach in middle schools, high schools and clinics.
Sharla Owens, executive director of the Tulsa Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said the letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announcing the cut offered no explanation.
“What this funding is going to impact if we’re not able to find replacement funding, is we won’t be able to continue to provide evidence-based programs proven to make a difference,” Owens said.
Owens said the federal funding was instrumental in the decline of teenage birthrates in Oklahoma.
“Our projection was we were going to reach 58,000 youth in the course of the five years,” Owens said. “It’s huge for the state of Oklahoma.
“It’s been a huge assistance for the state to see the kind of decrease we’ve been able to realize, and (the funding cut is) a disservice to the young kids.”
Owens said the coalition’s partners have begun to consider the future of the program, but those discussions are still in the early stages.
“It’s in the early days and we’re disappointed, but we believe in what we’re doing and know this is important to our community and we hear that from our community,” she said.
Misty Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said the Choctaw Nation had no comment about the funding cut.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which receives $1.175 million annually through the federal grant, serves Choctaw, McCurtain and Pushmataha counties, some of the counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates in southeast Oklahoma.
In Oklahoma County, the grant has allowed the Oklahoma City-County Health Department to hire trained educators to teach pregnancy prevention curriculums in schools, refer teenagers to services and support teen-friendly health clinics, said Shannon Welch, director of Community Health at the OKC-County Health Department.
“The program has really been phenomenal and having that support to be able to expand across in Oklahoma County has been wonderful and what those funds have allowed us to do is expand our reach in expanding evidence-based curriculum in schools,” Welch said.
The funds also have allowed the Health Department to boost community engagement and educate teens and parents, Welch said.
“It’s been shown these strategies work,” she said, citing the state’s 26 percent decrease in the teenage birthrate.
“It’s a very significant decrease, so what (funding cuts) would mean for us if that funding goes away, is it will halt those efforts we’ve made with those improvements.”
The Health Department’s teenage pregnancy prevention program’s funding comes entirely from the federal funds, Welch said. Department members plan to soon meet with community partners to discuss the program’s sustainability and options following the end of the federal funds.
“The successes we’ve been able to achieve in the reduction in teen birth rate, Oklahoma’s much higher than national average, so that really showcases the needs for evidence based programs to help get us to where we need to be and reduce rate whenever we need,” Welch said.
“Programs like this are successful.”
The Trump administration cut $213.6 million nationwide for funding to scientific research and programs geared to prevent teenage pregnancy.
Tom Price, who heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has spoken out against state-funded birth control and has voted against funding for Planned Parenthood and federal funding for abortions.
Valerie Huber, the chief of staff to the assistant secretary for health at the department, previously headed an organization called the National Abstinence Education Association.
Though the teen birthrates are at historic lows across the U.S., they remain high compared to other industrialized countries.
Owens said the high teenager birthrate also has an economic impact on Oklahoma. For every dollar spent on teen pregnancy prevention, taxpayers save $3.78. Prevention also improves high school graduation rates, maternal health rates and strengthens the state’s workforce, she said.
“We’re talking about helping young people realize their dreams and potential and having an unplanned pregnancy, unplanned birth, is something that’s challenging for anyone,” Owens said.
Rodine said organizations likely won’t be able to find alternative funding for the programs, as overall, almost $8 million will be lost in federal funding over the remaining two years.
“This was a great investment of federal money in Oklahoma to address issue we’ve had, and communities and tribes were taking the money and investing it wisely,” she said. “Why cut something that is this successful and this crucial to our state? And to take it out of this year’s current budget is a question for our policy makers.”