November 1, 2011 — As the Obama administration and Catholic groups remain at odds over the implementation of the federal health reform law (PL 111-148), a new dispute has erupted involving HHS grants for support services for human trafficking survivors, the Washington Post reports.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has threatened legal action against HHS over the agency's decision to end the organization's grant for helping survivors of human trafficking. USCCB since 2006 has received more than $19 million for programs aimed at providing housing, counseling and other services to trafficking survivors, but HHS in September denied the group's latest bid for a grant.
According to the Post, disputes over the grant have been ongoing since the George W. Bush administration, which worked to direct more federal social service contracts to faith-based groups. At the time, members of the HHS grant review board raised concerns that USCCB would not refer patients for abortions or contraception, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit argued that many trafficking survivors have been raped and do not speak English and, therefore, have difficulties obtaining reproductive health services without assistance. The suit also alleged that HHS allowed USCCB to impose its religious beliefs when offering services. In defending the suit, Department of Justice lawyers argued the USCCB has been "resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of human trafficking."
This spring, HHS political appointees helped reshape the request for proposals to include a "strong preference" for applicants offering referrals for family planning and the "full range" of "gynecological and obstetric care." Such services include contraception and abortion.
Allegations of Bias
USCCB alleges that the Obama administration is biased against Catholic organizations. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the conference, said, "It's a sad manipulation of a process to promote a pro-abortion agenda."
The Post reports that some HHS staffers also have raised concerns that the process was politicized, noting that the review board gave USCCB a higher score in the evaluation process than the groups that ultimately received grants.
HHS officials deny any bias. "There wasn't an intention to go out and target anybody," George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the HHS Administration for Children and Families, said, adding that the agency "followed standard procedure." He said, "Ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility -- and I'm not trying to get anyone off the hook here -- to do what I thought was in the best interests of these victims."
The dispute over the grant comes as the administration and some Catholic groups, including USCCB, remain locked in "contentious battles" over issues related to the federal health reform law, the Post reports. Many Catholic groups object to HHS' proposal to require insurers to cover contraception without out-of-pocket costs for policy holders. Although the proposal includes an exemption for certain religious employers, some Catholic groups say the exemption is too narrow (Markon, Washington Post, 10/31).