Arkansas’ $1M pregnancy resource center grant untouched so far

Targeted groups cite “strings attached,” potential religious “compromise” as dealbreakers

By: - Thursday August 18, 2022 6:00 am

Arkansas’ $1M pregnancy resource center grant untouched so far

Targeted groups cite “strings attached,” potential religious “compromise” as dealbreakers

By: - 6:00 am

Getty Images

Getty Images

Arkansas’ crisis pregnancy centers so far have declined to apply for a new $1 million grant program created by the state Legislature to help fund their operations.

The application period opened Aug. 1 and ends Aug. 26, but no one has applied for the money aimed at helping those facing unintended pregnancy and encouraging them to give birth.

Several leaders of the pregnancy centers, which are often religiously affiliated, said they will not apply for the grants, worried that accepting government money could restrict their religious missions.

Christie Robertson, director of 1st Choice pregnancy resource center in Fort Smith, said 1st Choice, which survives on private donations, could expand its services with more funding to help accommodate the “baby boom coming in 2023,” but she is concerned about the “strings attached.”

“Money always makes things easier, but God provides, and he has provided for us for the last 32 years and he’s not going to stop,” Robertson said.

State leaders have encouraged centers to apply, including those with religious affiliations. Religious activities are still permissible, but grantees should use the state money on non-religious costs and services, according to state guidance. 

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 187 of 2022 earlier this year, creating the $1 million grant program. The law lists the facilities eligible for grant funding as “crisis pregnancy centers,” maternity homes, adoption agencies, and “social service agencies that provide material support and other assistance to individuals facing an unintended pregnancy to help those individuals give birth to their unborn children.”

Grant-eligible organizations “[do] not perform, prescribe, provide referrals for or encourage abortion, or affiliate with any organization that performs, prescribes, provides referrals for, or encourage abortion,” the law states.

There are more than 50 crisis pregnancy centers in Arkansas, according to Arkansas Right to Life. Some centers are funded solely by donations, according to their websites.

Republican state leaders have held up the centers as critical now that abortion has been almost entirely outlawed in Arkansas following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

The state Department of Finance and Administration, which administers the grants, has encouraged eligible organizations to “narrow the focus of their applications to those expenses and costs that clearly fall within the scope of the legislation,” Hutchinson said in an emailed statement through a spokeswoman.

“We encourage and expect religiously affiliated organizations to apply,” Hutchinson said in the statement. “While grant applications focus on specific costs within the organization’s budget, this [in] no way restricts the organizations’ day-to-day faith outreach.”

The grant money would be better used to fund “community health centers, or supporting initiatives that are not bound by a religious view [and] initiatives that would provide actual medical care” instead of crisis pregnancy centers, said Ali Taylor, president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network.

“In lots of cases, crisis pregnancy centers flat-out lie to people about abortion and its potential risks,” Taylor said.

“The nail that finished it”

The finance department held a Zoom meeting Wednesday so potential applicants could ask questions about the grant. No applications had been received as of Wednesday afternoon, department spokesman Scott Hardin said.

The grant application includes lists of allowable and non-allowable uses of the money. Allowable uses include but are not limited to advertising, supplies and equipment, rent and utilities and contracts for “client-focused professional services,” such as mental health counseling.

The money cannot be used for “community awareness events, food and beverages, and salary support for employees beyond the project period [ending June 30, 2023],” according to the application document.

Both Act 187 and the application do not mention religion or faith practices by organizations eligible for the grant.

However, the grant program’s specific goal is to help pregnant Arkansans give birth regardless whether the organization or the client practices any religion, so the money can only be used for non-religious services, Hardin said in an email.

“Religious activities can still be performed, but the application should identify only those non-religious cost elements that need support from the grant,” Hardin said.

The finance department sent this stipulation via email to potential applicants, and Vikki Parker said it “was the nail that finished it” and convinced her not to apply for the grant.

Parker is the founder and executive director of Options Pregnancy Center in Cabot, Beebe and Jacksonville. She said the inability to use the grant money for religious reasons would “compromise” the mission of the three facilities she runs, even though extra money would be helpful, because the centers’ clients often bring up the topic of religion.

“If the client brings it up, which happens many times, then that makes it really hard,” Parker said.

“You either compromise your faith and say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about this,’ or you leave the room. Separation of this is ridiculous to me because it goes against who we are.”

Taylor called the grant program “a clear violation of the separation of church and state.”

“The state knows that these centers are religiously based, and they’re offering them money anyway,” she said.

Parker and other pregnancy resource center directors said they were already hesitant to apply for the money because the finance department had not answered their questions about the grant program’s rules and regulations in the months between the passing of Act 187 and the availability of the grant money.

Hardin said the agency simply wanted to ensure that it did not release any conflicting information and that the application was the primary source of information about the grant.

Money always makes things easier, but God provides, and he has provided for us for the last 32 years and he’s not going to stop.

– Christie Robertson, director of 1st Choice pregnancy resource center in Fort Smith

Some pregnancy center directors tried to convince state legislators to direct the grant money “to a statewide call center, or advertising, or pregnancy resource centers as a whole, instead of centers individually taking grants,” said Dana Schwiethale, executive director of the Loving Choices pregnancy resource centers in Fayetteville and Rogers.

Schwiethale said she had the same questions as Parker about the stipulations of the grant, and both said they had not read the application and its requirements soon after its release because they had already decided not to apply.

Not all pregnancy resource center directors are opposed to the funding. Shelley Lewis, executive director of Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center in Little Rock, said she is “open to it if there’s some opportunity to continue offering free services.”

Bethany Christian Services, a national organization with an office in Little Rock, will not apply for the grant to aid its adoption services, media relations director Holly Harvey said in an email.

But Michelle Oglesby said the grant is an “answered prayer” for the organization she runs in Sherwood, An Angel’s Choice. The adoption-focused organization serves pregnant girls and women who are homeless, have been evicted or were kicked out of their homes by the fathers of their children, she said.

Oglesby rents two buildings to offer housing for those who choose to put their babies up for adoption. If she receives grant money, she would no longer have to rent from a landlord.

“I have been praying that God would bless me with getting my own [property], some sort of a home so that moms who choose adoption have somewhere to go until after the baby is born,” she said.

Loretta Alexander, the health policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said $1 million is “a small amount” to support the number of organizations in the state that are eligible for the grant, and pregnancy resource centers should help meet all of a pregnant person’s needs, including housing and transportation, to live up to their names.

“You’re encouraging them to give birth, but you’ve got to make sure all the other things are in place to have a healthy life, including the social determinants of health,” Alexander said.

If no groups apply for the grants or not all of the $1 million is distributed, leftover money will be returned to the state’s general revenue fund, according to the law. 

Other state measures

The grant program is one of several state initiatives this year focused on maternal health and unexpected pregnancies. 

Last week, Hutchinson announced that he supports expanding the reach of two existing Medicaid-based initiatives aimed at serving pregnant and postpartum Arkansans, especially in rural areas, pending the federal government’s approval of two Medicaid waiver requests.

The first waiver would allow an additional 5,000 pregnant and postpartum Arkansans to receive at-home visits during a high-risk pregnancy via Life360, run by the state Department of Human Services.

Life360 currently has 450 contractors or employees and serves about 2,000 families. The initiative is part of Arkansas Health And Opportunity For Me (ARHOME), the state’s version of Medicaid expansion that was previously called Arkansas Works and revamped in 2021 at Hutchinson’s request. The waiver that created ARHOME in December 2021 included the Life360 expansion request, which was still under review by federal regulators at the time and still is today.

Hutchinson expects the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to grant the Life360 waiver in September so the additional services can begin in January. Rural hospitals will coordinate Life360 services to reach as many Arkansans as possible, he said.

You’re encouraging them to give birth, but you’ve got to make sure all the other things are in place to have a healthy life.

– Loretta Alexander, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families health policy director

The state would pay $5.5 million for the expansion as part of its ongoing Medicaid budget, and the federal government would pay $13.4 million.

DHS should train more Life360 home health care providers and give them specific training to identify mental health issues and unmet material needs in new parents, Hutchinson said. He requested $350,000 for DHS to fund these changes, subject to Arkansas Legislative Council approval.

Hutchinson also asked the federal government for a second waiver for Arkansans with incomes up to 212% of the federal poverty level to receive Medicaid coverage for all health care needs, including mental health, for 60 days after giving birth. Current postpartum Medicaid coverage in Arkansas covers only pregnancy-related health needs.

The current poverty level for a family of four is an annual income of $27,750, which would mean the waiver would cover a family of four with income up to $58,830.

The expansion should take effect in January with the expected federal approval, and the state would pay $350,000 of the total $1.2 million cost, Hutchinson said.

“The health and mental well-being of the mom is directly related to the well-being of the child, so when we address one, we address both,” he said.

DHS spokesman Gavin Lesnick said the state had not yet submitted the second waiver request for federal approval as of Monday.

The state was already planning the Medicaid program expansions and implementing Act 187 before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision in June overturned Roe v. Wade and left access to abortion in the hands of the states. Arkansas had a “trigger law” in place to outlaw abortion in nearly all circumstances, unless the mother’s life is at risk, immediately upon the Supreme Court’s decision.

Hutchinson said programs to support mothers and babies are more necessary than ever in light of the Dobbs ruling.

“We know that there will be an increased number of at-risk pregnancies in the coming year, and that is likely because we are reducing abortion in the state of Arkansas because of the trigger law and the Supreme Court case,” Hutchinson said in a news conference.

“We have already taken many steps over time to increase the opportunities for adoption, for foster care, for child welfare and coverage as well, but there are things we want to do more.”

The initiatives Hutchinson announced last week are “taping the cracks” left by the loss of abortion access in Arkansas, since more births will put a strain on the existing maternal welfare programs and foster care system, said Karen Ricketts, president of the Arkansas Coalition for Reproductive Justice.

“We’re having a crisis on the welfare of mothers and children, because [the law] is still mandating birth,” she said.

Medicaid already pays for 60% of births in Arkansas, DHS Medicaid Director Dawn Stehle said at last week’s news conference.

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Hutchinson also announced a plan to use $1.7 million from the state’s rainy day funds to pay Arkansans who take in foster children on a provisional basis or because they are related to the children. The state only pays “traditional” foster parents at the moment.

The state should also increase foster parents’ monthly payments from the current $455, Hutchinson said.

DHS and the Arkansas Department of Health are in the process of creating a toll-free hotline, 1-855-ARK-MOMS, that expecting and new parents in Arkansas can call in search of resources such as counseling and referrals in “unexpected” situations, Hutchinson said.

A provision in the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 gives states the option to extend Medicaid postpartum coverage to 12 months after birth. As of Friday, 37 states had applied for this option to some extent.

Arkansas has not applied, and Hutchinson’s office deferred questions about postpartum Medicaid coverage to the Department of Human Services.

Lesnick said the department believes the initiatives Hutchinson announced “are critical steps that will have significant benefits to pregnant women and new mothers across this state.”

“In general, most new mothers continue with their existing coverage or transition to other eligibility categories within Medicaid after giving birth,” Lesnick said.

Extending Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months after birth would benefit Arkansas mothers and children, especially if they have existing health problems, said Alexander of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

“Most postpartum deaths are related to preventable conditions, like heart conditions or gestational diabetes or other chronic diseases they need coverage for,” Alexander said.

Taylor noted that creating or enhancing support programs for expecting and new parents became a stronger talking point after Roe v. Wade was overturned compared to before.

“It should have always been a priority,” Taylor said. “The state decided, ‘Now that we’re forcing people to continue pregnancies, now we’ll support them.’ For a state with one of the highest maternal mortality rates [in the country], you’d think that they would have been focusing on maternal health and newborn health a long time ago.”

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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