Political appointees led cancelation of teen pregnancy prevention program


Internal emails and memos reveal that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) went against career officials’ objections by deciding to cut short grants aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. 

Documents released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicate that three political appointees directed the changes to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program: Valerie Huber, who prior to joining HHS headed a national abstinence education advocacy group; Teresa Manning, a former anti-abortion rights lobbyist who has since left HHS; and Steven Valentine, who previously worked for Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. 

{mosads}Democracy Forward had filed the FOIA request after the Trump administration abruptly cut short grant programs aimed at ending teen pregnancy. More than 80 institutions across the U.S. were notified that the five-year grants they were awarded would end two years sooner than planned.

Evelyn Kappeler, a career official and director of the HHS Office of Adolescent Health, which oversees the TPP program, wrote in memos that her office was not aware of the changes until the last minute.

Kappeler indicated in a memo that career staff at the Office of Adolescent Health were discouraged from offering recommendations about the program and were told they should get in line with the administration by Don Wright, a high-ranking career official, who weeks later became acting HHS secretary following Tom Price’s departure.

“He stated that as civil servants, our responsibility is to implement the administration’s agenda whether we like it or not, as long as it is legal. And if we can’t, we should consider other options” Kappeler wrote in the memo. 

“He was angry and stated that … we needed to get in line and that I set the tone for the office and the office attitude.” 

Kappeler said two staffers — whom Wright had previously complained about — told her they were concerned about the lack of direct engagement by policy staff with the program office. She said they also expressed concerns about being able to ask questions in “this environment.”

In her memos, Kappeler indicated that the decision to end the grants was made outside of her office without their involvement and that career staff was not aware until the “last minute.” 

Kappeler also wrote in her memos that an HHS official, whose name was redacted, became angry with her for asking about what would happen to the $150,000 that had been previously approved for evaluation purposes. 

He said that it wasn’t her business and she “should not be weighing in.” 

The TPP program, created under former President Obama in 2010, was criticized by conservatives and abstinence advocates for placing an emphasis on safe sex instead of abstinence. 

Of the 44 program models approved by the Obama administration to coincide with the grants, only three focused solely on abstinence.

Grantees said they were given no reason why their grants were cut two years short, a change that will result in about $200 million in lost funds. 

Instead of ending in 2020, the grants will end for those groups June 30.

An HHS spokesman at the time told The Hill the grants were cut because there was “very weak evidence” they had a positive impact. 

The White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 also does not recommend funding the program. 

Several organizations last month sued the administration over the cuts and asked the judge to order the reinstatement of the funds. 

Canceling the grants reflects the administration’s ongoing shift toward abstinence-only education. 

Huber has overseen most of the changes, including one that asks organizations applying for Title X family planning funds to include in their programs a “meaningful emphasis” on the “benefits of avoiding sex” when interacting with adolescents.

The Trump administration also plans to release its first report early this summer as part of a $10 million research project looking at ways to improve sex education programs, with a focus on the impact of “sexual delay.”

Before joining HHS last summer, Huber was the president of Ascend, a group previously called the National Abstinence Education Association.

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