Watchdog: Group broke federal law escorting women to abortion clinics

Watchdog: Group broke federal law escorting women to abortion clinics
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A major recipient of federal grant money repeatedly broke the law by helping women seek abortions, a government watchdog reported Tuesday.

The National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) spent years working with a New York City health organization that escorted young women to abortion clinics, which is a violation of federal funding rules.

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That program included six members of the federal community service program AmeriCorps, as The Hill first reported late Monday.

Those involved in the assistance program, which took place at three clinics, violated a strict decades-old rule that prohibits federal funding from supporting abortion services.

The misuse of the funding sparked an outcry from Republicans in Congress.

Even before the full release of the findings, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the head of a health appropriations panel, asked the Obama administration to investigate how community health centers nationwide are using their grants.  

Performing that review would be a daunting task: There are more than 7,000 community health centers in the U.S., totaling $3.7 billion in federal funding in 2013 alone, according to the NACHC’s website. 

The NACHC is one of the largest recipients of AmeriCorps grants, receiving $30 million over five years and working with nearly 1,600 AmeriCorps members over the last year.

The group was swiftly penalized by the federal agency overseeing AmeriCorps, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). The agency required the NACHC group to hire an outside “oversight monitor” for its grant money and has banned it from enrolling any new volunteers under its grant.

But Cole said he believes a broader response is necessary for the group, which was previously caught violating abortion funding rules in 2011 when it allowed staff members to advocate for Planned Parenthood.

“Such a blatant disregard for federal law is outrageous,” Cole said of the NACHC program in a letter provided to The Hill. He called for a full review of other AmeriCorps grant recipients, warning that the organization may have a “systemic problem” with rule compliance.

AmeriCorps’s role in the abortion services was made public Tuesday in a summary of a report by the inspector general for the federal community service agency. The full report, which is said to include details such as the ages of the women seeking abortions, has yet to be released.

The federal investigation will likely mean heightened scrutiny for thousands of community health centers around the country, including those that don’t work with AmeriCorps.

A leading anti-abortion advocate in Congress, Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackBottom line Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion Democrats take heat from party | More states sue Purdue over opioid epidemic | 1 in 4 in poll say high costs led them to skip medical care Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee MORE (R-Tenn.), said she was “heartbroken” that community health centers had been involved.

“I have long highlighted the work of our nation’s community health centers as an alternative to the big-abortion business of Planned Parenthood and its related groups,” Black, a longtime nurse, wrote in a statement. “NACHC didn’t just break the rules; they broke trust with the American people.”

The misuse of federal funding took place at the NACHC for at least two years, investigators said.

Senior leaders at NACHC first assigned AmeriCorps volunteers to the clinic program, known as an abortion “doula” program, in 2013, without consulting its government partners. Staffers were aware of the violations as early as 2013 but did not report them, investigators said.

The same group had been warned three years earlier not to allow staff members paid by federal grants to assist with abortion services in any way. Abortion-related work by the NACHC was also the subject of a congressional hearing in 2011 after two other health centers that received federal grants were found to have committed “abortion-related prohibited activities.”

Lawyers at the CNCS had warned the community health group in 2010 to specifically inform its members about the federal abortion prohibition, which is included in the Service America Act.  

Instead, federal investigators found that the NACHC “adopted a narrower restriction.” The group told its staff not to provide a “direct referral,” such as providing an address or insurance information for an abortion clinic.

The CNCS said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” that one of its partners had again violated federal rules. The agency’s response to the investigation has been far-reaching, with “tough and detailed reforms” to hold groups like the NACHC accountable.

The community health group also reported that it took steps quickly to halt the program. The group further required its staff to be retrained on “all relevant rules and regulations related to AmeriCorps prohibited activities.”

Both groups, as well as the inspector general’s office, declined to release the full copy of the report.

Dave Taylor, chief operating officer of the NACHC, said in a statement to The Hill that the group’s leadership “self-reported the issue to the proper authorities” immediately after learning about the potential violations.

“We take this matter seriously,” Taylor said.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m.