Breaking: Watchdog org. filing complaint against anti-abortion group with state contract

By: - January 14, 2019 12:15 pm

A nonpartisan consumer watchdog group plans to file a complaint on Monday calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as well as Attorney General Dana Nessel and Auditor General Doug Ringler, to investigate and terminate Michigan’s contract with Real Alternatives, an anti-abortion pregnancy and parenting support services firm.

Campaign for Accountability (CFA), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said Real Alternatives has received $2.6 million over five years to run the Michigan Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program (MPPSP).

Gretchen Whitmer

CFA, however, claims that Real Alternatives has both misused taxpayer funds and failed to provide adequate health services to Michigan women, according to a copy of the complaint exclusively obtained by the Advance. The Harrisburg, Pa.-based group has faced an audit over a similar program in its home state.

The Michigan complaint is expected to be filed with the offices of Whitmer, Nessel and Ringler.

“Real Alternatives has grossly mismanaged Michigan’s alternatives to abortion program,” said Alice Huling, a lawyer with CFA. “It seems its leaders have lied to state officials, engaged in self-dealing and wasted scarce taxpayer resources leaving women without health care services. The state should immediately investigate and shut down this ineffective program.”

Real Alternatives, Huling further claims, has consistently failed to meet its own stated program goals for implementing the MPPSP and providing services to Michigan women.

Real Alternatives did not return a request for comment from the Advance.

However, in response to a 2017 audit of its work in Pennsylvania, the group said that it was an “excellent steward of taxpayer dollars and has demonstrated that by having a spotless record of low administrative costs, outstanding performance, and high accountability.”

Checkered past

GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013 directed the Michigan Department of Community Health to hire Real Alternatives and carry out a $700,000 pilot pregnancy and parenting support services program modeled after its program in Pennsylvania.

While Snyder has had differences with anti-abortion groups, he has said he’s pro-life. The political winds have shifted in Michigan, however, as his Democratic successor, Whitmer, strongly favors reproductive rights. So does Nessel.

Rick Snyder

Real Alternatives has “served over 6,500 women at over 25,700 visits” since starting up the Michigan program in 2013, according to its website. The group has won praise from pro-life advocates, like National Review columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez, who said in 2016, “What a blessing you are to those whose lives you literally save — whose families you help build and nurture when there is so much pressure to do otherwise.”

However, the services Real Alternatives provided to the state of Michigan have been questioned, as the Washington Post reported in 2014:  

“This is [Real Alternatives’] second shot in Michigan. The state also approved a $700,000 contract with Real Alternatives last year, although it paid just a fraction of the cost after the organization failed to sign up new providers during the first eight months of the contract.”

The Post included this response from Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health: “Because they’ve had difficulty getting providers on board, we do have concerns about the effectiveness of this program. We are looking at ways we can improve the reports we receive from them.”

The contract with Michigan was increased to $800,000 in 2015, according to Real Alternatives.

In 2014, Real Alternatives secured a $1 million contract with the state of Indiana. Under then-Gov. Mike Pence’s direction, the state of Indiana re-upped with Real Alternatives for a no-bid $3.5 million contract.  

Mike Pence | Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

“Real Alternatives offers life-affirming and compassionate care to women throughout pregnancy and as they begin their parenting journey,” said Mike Fichter, president and CEO of Indiana Right to Life, in a press release. “We have seen positive results from one year of Real Alternatives in Northern Indiana, and we look forward to seeing what the statewide impact of Real Alternatives will look like. We thank Gov. Mike Pence for expanding Real Alternatives throughout the state.”

Michigan program

The primary purpose of Real Alternatives’ Pregnancy and Parenting Support Services Program, according to its website, is to “provide core services consisting of information, education and counseling that promotes childbirth instead of abortion and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting.

“The program also provides support services including self-administered pregnancy kits, baby food, maternity and baby clothing and baby furniture, information and education, and referrals for other services for the needs of the women and newborn. The information and education provided under support services includes topics regarding infant care, adoption, parenting, or the use of abstinence to avoid unplanned and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.”

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The group has a “Miracle of Life” video on its website.

In the complaint, CFA alleges that Real Alternatives fell short of its goals. The group “initially promised to serve 2,000 women during the first year of the program, but over the four and a half years the MPPSP has been in place, only 3,771 pregnant [Michigan] women have received any services,” according to the complaint.

CFA argues further that Real Alternatives appears to have misallocated funds, prioritizing payments for ineffective advertising and pay increases for its executives, with no comparable increase in the number of women being served, according to its complaint.

What’s more, CFA argues that Real Alternatives also appears to be “skimming state funds by withholding 3 percent of the MPPSP funding intended for subcontractors for its own private, unspecified use, even though Real Alternatives’ administrative expenses are separately provided for in the MPPSP contract,” according to the CFA complaint.

Real Alternatives reports that it has saved Michigan taxpayers $86.6 million between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 and that has provided “4,015 program clients who received proper prenatal care.”

Pennsylvania probe

The group has had performances issues elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, where Real Alternatives also operates, a state Department of Human Services audit questioned a fee that Real Alternatives assessed its service providers.

Real Alternatives in 2017 responded to the audit by suing the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General and Department of Human Services to block access to the records of how that money was spent.

Pennsylvania capitol building, Harrisburg | Creative Commons

Real Alternatives argued at the time: “The reality of the situation between Real Alternatives and its service providers shows two separate agreements legally, ethically, and morally working together. The simple contract law principals [sic] are clear to the parties and any other party concerned about the truth.

“Real Alternatives is an excellent steward of taxpayer dollars and has demonstrated that by having a spotless record of low administrative costs, outstanding performance, and high accountability over 20 years throughout both Democratic and Republican administrations.”

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale expressed concern about the grant funding process in a report.

“Clearly, the state cannot provide grant funding to any organization without establishing intense monitoring and oversight procedures to ensure the funds are spent appropriately,” he wrote. “With better monitoring and oversight, this abuse of state funds could have been stopped long before my audit.”

Huling said CFA believes that Michigan needs to exert a similar level of oversight for Real Alternatives’ programs in the state. And she said Michigan should no longer fund the group.

“Before Michigan fritters away any more taxpayer money, the state should redirect Real Alternative’s funding to effective health care providers,” Huling told the Advance. “And Real Alternative officials should be held accountable for any misconduct.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.