Politics & Government

NC budget would quadruple money for anti-abortion group questioned on oversight

An anti-abortion group based in Texas is set to have its North Carolina state funding quadrupled, even though the state agency it reports to did not recommend more money for the group.

Public health officials say the nonprofit Human Coalition didn’t provide information they needed to determine “the effectiveness or cost of expanding the model” carried out with state funding at a Raleigh clinic. However, the group’s funding was raised from $300,000 to $1.2 million in both the House and Senate proposed budgets.

For its locations outside of Texas, including in Raleigh, Human Coalition has “developed marketing outreaches, women’s care clinics, and cultural influences to end abortion city by city,” according to its website. The Raleigh location is on Louisburg Road, with the same address as Women’s Care Clinic.

The 2017 state budget instructed Human Coalition to use its grant for a pilot program to “assist women experiencing crisis pregnancies to continue their pregnancies to full term.”

According to the group’s reporting to the state Department of Health and Human Services, the program served several North Carolina counties in the first three months of 2018 and connected a few dozen people to employment services, a faith community, counseling, Medicaid applications, child-care resources, housing resources, adoption resources and other services.

As of April, Human Coalition reported serving 113 clients this fiscal year. In the first quarter it reported a 59% “life decision rate,” which means carrying the pregnancy to term. In the second quarter, the rate was 63%. Some areas of the reports were blank, including program accomplishments that would include specifics on statistics to support the impact, as well as a section that would summarize future plans and funding prospects.

If the proposed funding written into the House and Senate budgets by Republicans become law, Human Coalition would receive $1.2 million to expand its continuum-of-care pilot program statewide.

Money would be used to “encourage healthy childbirth, support childbirth as an alternative to abortion, promote family formation, assist in establishing successful parenting techniques, and increase the economic self-sufficiency of families,” according to the budget.

Human Coalition was renamed a few years ago from Online for Life, and focuses on online search engine optimization — which uses keywords women searching for pregnancy-related services online might use — as well as crisis pregnancy centers. On its main website, locations are called “strategies.”

During the budget process, Democrats asked questions about funding for Human Coalition and other anti-abortion groups, and how they’re monitored.

Multiple efforts by phone and email to reach Human Coalition for comment were unsuccessful.

Program oversight

Tara Romano, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, also questioned oversight of the group.

“Our main concerns are we just don’t know really know what our money is being spent on. Human Coalition is very clearly an anti-abortion organization, and its goal is to dissuade people from getting abortions,” Romano said. “It doesn’t seem like [its state funding] is being spent on health care, and [it’s] getting money from DHHS.”

When the $1.2 million in Human Coalition funding came through the House HHS committee, Rep. Gale Adcock, a Wake County Democrat, said what she had read about the group seemed one-sided, and she asked why it was getting money.

Rep. Josh Dobson, a Marion Republican, said then that it was just part of a comprehensive approach to care.

Human Coalition’s services to encourage a woman to carry a pregnancy to term include referrals to the Women, Infants and Children program, sonograms, breastfeeding support, Medicaid, housing options, drug and alcohol addiction services, employment services, transportation, childcare and in-house counseling, among other services.

When the budget was discussed on the Senate floor, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican who is also Senate deputy pro tempore, described pregnancy center funding as an “absolutely incredible investment we can make.”

In emails to Rep. Julie von Haefen, an Apex Democrat, to DHHS and its Division of Public Health responded to several questions about the state’s contracts with crisis pregnancy centers. They include Human Coalition, Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship and Mountain Area Pregnancy Services.

Human Coalition received $300,000 in each of the past two years. Reports from Human Coalition to DHHS were late six times in those two years ending with a report April 30. Human Coalition’s reports to the state did not include information about a timeline for expansion nor what kind of expansion it planned beyond a new Charlotte clinic, according to an email from DHHS Deputy Secretary for Health Services Mark T. Benton to von Haefen.

“And their reports did not address the actual cost of the program in the Raleigh clinic or details of services provided there so any potential cost savings could be calculated,” DHHS responded to von Haefen.

Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship and Mountain Area Pregnancy Services would also get state funding in the proposed Senate budget. Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, which is based in Charlotte, received $1.1 million in federal grants from 2013 to 2017, when funding changed to a direct state appropriation. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship received $1.3 million from the state, $300,000 of which was earmarked for a subcontract with Human Coalition, according to DHHS. It received $1 million this past year.

Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship filed all its reports but one to the state on time. Its members include centers all over the state, some called crisis pregnancy centers, pregnancy care centers or pregnancy support services.

Mountain Area Pregnancy Services in the Mars Hill area is listed as a Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship member. In Raleigh, Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship members are Amazing Grace Adoptions, Birthchoice Pregnancy Medical Center, Christian Life Home, Gateway and Your Choice Pregnancy Clinic.

Mountain Area Pregnancy Services received federal grant funds starting in 2018. The proposed Senate budget provides $50,000 to Mountain Area Pregnancy Services.

Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship

Bobbie Meyer is state director of Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, now known as LifeLink Carolina. Meyer said it’s a membership organization of about 80 pregnancy care agencies, primarily nonprofit pregnancy resource centers.

Funding in the proposed state budget continues funding in previous years, Meyer said in an email. The majority of the state’s previous $1.3 million appropriation for medical equipment is being used for ultrasound equipment — used to provide images of fetuses in utero to pregnant women — and training of medical personnel to use it, she said.

Of that, $300,000 was for Human Coalition’s continuum of care pilot program, as the organization’s Raleigh clinic was a member of the fellowship. But now Human Coalition’s Raleigh and Charlotte clinics are no longer members, she said.

“They’re doing a great job in their communities, and we certainly wish them well,” Meyer said. She said the fellowship’s individual member pregnancy resource centers apply to them for funding and use it for training, advertising, educational materials on prenatal care and parenting and baby equipment.

“State funding has enabled these [pregnancy resource centers] to improve and expand their services in their local communities as a partner with other agencies to care more effectively with pregnant women and their families,” Meyer said. Unspent money previously appropriated will carry forward in the new budget.

Human Coalition report

A DHHS report on Human Coalition’s pilot program was submitted April 30 to legislative committees and staff.Human Coalition did not submit costs or a timeline, the report said, and “no potential savings have been identified.”

DHHS did not recommend expanding the program.

“NC DHHS is unable to offer an informed recommendation regarding expansion of the program. DHHS programs should be evidence-based and cost-effective whenever possible and align with a statewide coordinated and integrated services system that leverage existing state and federal initiatives for maternal and child health,” the report states.

The report also noted that the program reported 83 of the 113 clients served in the current fiscal year reported they would carry their pregnancies to term.

“Although connecting people to existing programs like WIC or housing assistance can be helpful, the model being piloted by the Human Coalition has not been subject to independent research or evaluation. Therefore, it cannot be identified as evidence-based or even a best practice,” the report states.

According to the Better Business Bureau’s charity review, Human Coalition did not meet standards, with one of the reasons being inadequate board oversight.

Von Haefen said that expanding Human Coalition’s program is “just bad government, whether or not you agree with what their mission is. I personally disagree with giving [them] taxpayer money,” she said.

For Human Coalition, von Haefen is concerned about a lack of oversight and that the organization is headquartered in Texas, not North Carolina.

“It frustrates me our taxpayer money is being spent on Google searches online,” von Haefen said, referring to Human Coalition’s search engine optimization work.

The group’s advisory board includes a North Carolinian: Daniel L. Akin, leader of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. Executive and advisory board members include business and religious leaders.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.