Critics decry Trump gutting teen pregnancy prevention grants

The Trump administration is cutting short a batch of Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants, angering big-city health department chiefs who said Wednesday they will no longer be able to figure out what’s working to cut pregnancy rates.

What was supposed to be a five-year grant is being cut to three years, meaning funding will dry up in 2018 — leaving 81 grantees scrambling.

For instance, Seattle and King County schools in Washington wanted to know whether their sexed curriculum, known as FLASH, caused students to delay having sex or whether those who did used condoms or other forms of birth control.

“Now the money will be yanked from us midstream,” said Patty Hayes, the region’s public health director. “We won’t have the funding to gather the final data and analyze the results.”

Baltimore stands to lose $3.5 million, and Health Commissioner Leana Wen said city officials are struggling to make sense of the termination. “No reason was given. No alternatives were proposed,” she said.

The TPP program, started in 2010 under President Obama, costs about $100 million per year and reaches roughly 1 million adolescents in about 40 states and territories.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services said it was looking to do belt-tightening, and the program was a logical target after a “rigorous evaluation” of the first round of funding found most of the programs showed either no effects or appeared to make things worse.

“Three programs demonstrated negative effects on teen behavior, including an increased likelihood to begin having sex, increased likelihood to engage in unprotected sex, and an increased likelihood of becoming pregnant,” the agency said. “While some programs did show positive effects, most positive impacts either dissipated within 6-12 months or were evident in only specific sub-groups of teens.”

TPP supporters, however, say changing behavior is difficult, and scoring a nearly 30-percent success rate is actually quite good.

They said the grants help them test out what works and what doesn’t.

“The results of the evaluations — both those that found no results and those that found positive results — have expanded the knowledge of where, when and with whom existing evidence-based programs are most effective,” said Bill Albert, chief innovation officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

HHS said it notified grant recipients of the new end date of 2018 after Mr. Trump’s budget request zeroed out the funding though left the door open to reconsidering in the meantime.

“During this time HHS will continue to review the evidence and determine how to better structure this program, should the U.S. Congress decide to continue its funding,” the agency said.

Senate Democrats last month told HHS Secretary Thomas Price that his decision to shorten the grant period unilaterally was “highly unusual,” particularly since Congress hasn’t acted on funding bills for fiscal 2018.

For now the HHS website still has a page touting the program’s success stories, from a church’s “Plan Be” program in Miami, which highlights the risks of early sexual activity, to Promoting Safer Sex in Tennessee, or “Psst,” a program for teen girls in the Knoxville area that promotes both condom use and abstinence.

The U.S. has made tremendous strides in curtailing the rate of teen pregnancy in recent decades.

In 2015 the teen birth rate was just over 22 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19 — a 64-percent drop from a long-term high in 1991, when there were nearly 62 births per 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rates of success in driving down teen pregnancy rates vary from place to place, however, and the U.S. still lags behind other parts of the industrialized world.

Parts of Texas, which is poised to lose about $8 million in grant money, suffer from teen pregnancy rates that are nearly double the national average, and the federal dollars serve as a type of backstop for state dollars that sometimes fall short, said Gwen Daverth, CEO and president at The Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

“It’s devastating to Texas,” Ms. Daverth said of HHS’ decision. “We’ve got one of the biggest needs for this funding, and we’re getting a good chunk of that money.”