Trump admin delays spark fear for family planning groups over funding

The Trump administration is running months behind in supplying basic information on how organizations that provide birth control and other reproductive health services to low-income women and families can apply for federal family planning grants, raising new uncertainties over the program.

The delays at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) are putting additional stress on organizations that depend on funding through Title X, a nearly 50-year-old program focused solely on family planning grants.

{mosads}Some of the groups have grants expiring on March 31 and are developing contingency plans in case of a funding lapse.

“The reality is that all of the networks are going to start thinking about how and when to shut down services or minimize services if there is a lapse of funding, and thinking of what other patchwork of services they can put together to help people if HHS has not followed through in a timely manner,” said Jessica Marcella, vice president of advocacy and communications for the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association.

Both supporters and critics of the program have expected for months that the administration would make changes to Title X — potentially through a funding announcement — that could include restrictions for providers that offer abortions or limit what services the funding can be used for.

It’s an attractive alternative for anti-abortion groups who are frustrated with the GOP Congress for failing to defund Planned Parenthood and are now looking to the administration to make changes.

President Trump has made abortion a key part of his presidency, with his administration taking several actions over the past year that have been praised by anti-abortion groups. Trump on Friday will address the March for Life, an annual march against abortion in Washington, D.C.

In the past, organizations that were awarded Title X funding learned about possible grants in November. The fact that it is mid-January and they have yet to receive any information about program requirements is a significant break from the protocol in previous administrations.

A notice posted in October by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health estimated the announcement would be sent in November, with an application deadline of Jan. 3 and grants starting April 1.

An HHS spokesperson did not specify when the information would be available when asked by The Hill in November and January, only stating that the agency expects to release it in “ample time to make awards in the fiscal year and to ensure a timely distribution of service grants across the nation.”

Family planning providers are anxious about a funding lapse. There are about 70 days before the grants expire for some recipients, and organizations in the past have typically been given 60 to 90 days to apply for more funding. HHS also needs time to review and approve applications.

“We are concerned about the disruption of services. Family planning is a time-sensitive service, and when you need to get birth control, it’s pretty important to be able to get that when you need it,” said Julie Rabinovitz, president and CEO of Essential Access Health in California, the largest family planning grantee in the U.S.

The uncertainty can put stress on providers who rely on the funding, which totals about $286 million annually.

“We are getting a lot of calls from our health centers asking, do we know what’s going on, do we know when that funding is coming up,” Rabinovitz said.

“It’s very hard for them to do their planning when they don’t know if the funding will continue after March 31.”

Some worry about the potential impact on staffing levels.

“It puts pressure on those clinics who are delivering services. It makes them nervous about if they can hold on to staff,” said Kristin Adams, president and CEO of the Indiana Family Health Council, which funds 32 clinics across the state

“Staff start feeling like there’s going to be no funding or delayed funding. Are they going to get paid? Now we’re talking about people’s livelihood. And if we don’t have staff, we don’t see patients.”

Complicating matters more is the abrupt departure of the HHS official who ran the program.

Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee who oversaw Title X as the deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Population Affairs, resigned Friday. It’s not clear if her departure is related to the delay of the program, and HHS officials did not reply to request for comment about her exit.

Several anti-abortion advocates have been hired at HHS, including Valerie Huber, a former National Right to Life lobbyist who will fill Manning’s position for the time being.

While Title X has been somewhat of a political football over the years, with Republican and Democratic presidents making changes to the program after taking office, observers say these delays are unprecedented.

“I’ve been working here for 30 years, and since I came here, Title X has always been something we worry about,” said Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.

“I don’t think it’s ever been quite this bad, where we’re on pins and needles not knowing if the grant is even coming out.”

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