The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent letters to organizations last summer stating it planned to terminate five-year federal grants to dozens of programs aiming to curb teen pregnancy across the U.S. two years early.
Under the grant’s elimination, Youth Services of Tulsa, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department were set to lose millions of dollars. However, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on June 1 ruled HHS’ termination of the federal funding was unlawful. The agency must now accept and process grantees’ applications for funding.
The ruling has leaders of Oklahoma’s programs feeling more confident about the future.
Shannon Welch, director of community health at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said she was glad to hear the news.
“We’re looking at this as a win,” Welch said. “It’s an opportunity for us to continue our work.”
Oklahoma’s programs were awarded five-year grants in 2015, but HHS’ decision would have ended their funding in June 2018. The three programs faced losing about $3.8 million annually, a total of almost $8 million.
Oklahoma ranked among the top in the nation for teen birth rates in 2016, falling behind only Arkansas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics.
However, the state has made significant headway in decreasing that rate — it fell by 54 percent between 1991 and 2016.
Healthy Futures of Texas, a grant recipient, filed a class-action lawsuit in April 2017 in an effort to preserve the grants, along with 61 recipients. Ten other programs sued at an earlier date.
Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in her June 1 order stated HHS must process grantees’ applications as if “it had not be shorten[ed].” Jackson is the fourth judge to rule against HHS’ decision.
When HHS announced it would eliminate funding last summer, it stated grants would end in June 2018. Under Jackson’s order, HHS must reimburse grantees’ if there are any gaps in funding.
The federal agency has released statements stating the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program was ineffective.
Congress created the $110 million program in 2010 to fund evidence-based initiatives aimed to prevent teenage pregnancy. HHS rewarded 81 grants in 2015 that were supposed to last five years.
The federal grant has allowed the Oklahoma City-County Health Department to hire trained educators to teach pregnancy prevention curriculums in schools, refer youth to services and support teen-friendly health clinics, Welch told The Frontier in a previous interview.
The department’s program is supported entirely through HHS, and its termination had left leaders scrambling to find alternative funding before the grant ended.
Welch said although her department is awaiting further guidance from HHS, staff members are preparing a grant application. She said she hopes to hear back from the agency by August.
“The good thing is we have a well though-out plan for four years, so it has not been difficult at all,” Welch said of the application. “I was able to pull together a draft very quickly.”
HHS did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.
Youth Services of Tulsa heads a collaboration with the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Community Service Council to work with 30 partners across the city to educate youth on healthy relationships, healthcare and how to make responsible decisions. The organization is gearing up to submit its funding application.
“Youth Services of Tulsa will be applying for funding to continue our crucial work,” executive director David Grewe said in a statement.
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