Public health officials call on HHS to restore grant funding for preventing teen pregnancies

In July, public health departments across the country got a letter from the Trump administration abruptly cutting off funding for teen pregnancy prevention efforts in the middle of the program’s grant cycle. The move means that many teens will miss out on receiving an education that could — quite literally — change the trajectory of their lives.

The abrupt funding cut — which came down without reason or explanation, according to grantees — also cuts off research efforts right at the evaluation stage. That’s the stage when public health practitioners rigorously assess a program’s outcomes, gather evidence of its effectiveness, and determine what works and what doesn’t. That’s exactly what we should want from our public investments — evidence, not anecdotes — and it’s exactly how you tackle a problem as complex and as costly as teen pregnancy. Teasing out the evidence is how we sort the aspirational from the effectual.

And determining what works to prevent and reduce teen pregnancy is a worthy endeavor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the U.S. teen birth rate recently hit a record low — the birth rate among young women ages 15 to 19 dropped 8 percent between 2014 and 2015 — the U.S. is still home to one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world. And that rate comes with impacts, including upping the risk that teen girls won’t graduate from high school, which has a generational domino effect in and of itself, as well as racking up billions in societal costs related to health care, foster care and lost tax revenue. Plus, nearly all teen pregnancies are unplanned, which makes investing in their prevention sound public policy.

At a news conference held earlier this month and hosted by the Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC), health officials from cities on opposite coasts — Baltimore and Seattle — spoke about the importance of preventing teen pregnancy in their communities and the on-the-ground impact of abruptly losing federal funding that had already been awarded and appropriated. Both the Baltimore City Health Department as well as Public Health — Seattle & King County are among the 81 grantees who received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in July saying the five-year grant they’d already been awarded through the agency’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program would be ending two years early, in 2018 instead of 2020.

Both Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner, and Patty Hayes, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, said there was no dialogue, discussion or explanation for the funding cut. The announcement didn’t even come in a special notice. Instead, both health officials found out about the cut when they received their usual, yearly notice-of-award letter in which the end date had been pushed up by two years. Hayes said Seattle’s program manager quickly reached out to HHS for an explanation and was basically told the agency was moving on to implement the cuts.

“It’s just an arbitrary decision that we’re trying to appeal,” Hayes said during the BCHC news conference.

Hayes and Wen are among 20 public health officials from around the country who signed onto a BCHC letter to HHS Secretary Tom Price asking him to reconsider the cuts. Also, in July, Democratic senators wrote to Price asking him to explain his plan to “unilaterally” cut the teen pregnancy prevention grants short. The letter states:

Since the start of the grant projects and prior to the recent notification of early termination, (the HHS Office of Adolescent Health) has ensured the program includes high quality implementation, rigorous evaluation, innovation and learning from results. The pace of progress has accelerated dramatically since the federal investments in evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention began. Since 2010, pregnancy rates among 15- to 19-year-olds has declined by 41 percent nationwide — more than double the decline in any other six-year period since rates peaked in 1991 — and is at a historic low. Seventy-five percent of pregnancies among this population remain unintended. The (Teen Pregnancy Prevention) Program has been proven to support young people in delaying sexual initiation and adopting sexual health behaviors that help them avoid unintended pregnancy.

In Baltimore, the grant termination means a cut of $3.5 million, which means 20,000 students in grades seven through nine will lose access to comprehensive reproductive health education, Wen said. The funding cut also means the agency won’t have the resources to continue training teachers or members of a local youth advisory council that does peer-to-peer education.

Wen said Baltimore has made huge progress in reducing its teen birth rate — it fell by 44 percent between 2009 and 2015. She’s worried that losing any ground on that front will only lead to fewer educational and economic opportunities for Baltimore youth, fewer young women graduating from high school and greater public costs to the community.

“We should be doing everything we can to empower youth to succeed and thrive,” Wen said during the BCHC news conference. “We see the impact in our cities, and we urge the federal government and HHS to reconsider this drastic cut, taking into account the future of all of our youth across the country.”

In Seattle and King County, where teen pregnancy rates have gone down by more than half since 2008, public health officials were using their $5 million Teen Pregnancy Prevention grant to evaluate the effectiveness of a sexual health curriculum they recently updated called FLASH, which includes a variety of strategies to help reduce teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence. During the BCHC news conference, Hayes said FLASH has been used all over the U.S. and the world, with about 80,000 FLASH lessons downloaded in the span of just one year. She noted that the curriculum is designed to be inclusive of LGBT students and is just as relevant for young people who decide to abstain from sex as it is for those who don’t.

However, Public Health — Seattle & King County hadn’t had the chance to rigorously evaluate the curriculum to tease out its exact impacts, such as whether it increased the number of students who delay sex or the number of young people who practice safe sex. That’s what it was using its HHS grant funding for – to measure the effectiveness of the curriculum. The public health agency had already recruited more than two-dozen schools in multiple states to take part in the evaluation; thousands of students participated in the FLASH curriculum and an independent evaluator was hired to analyze the outcomes.

But now that HHS has shut down the grant funding early, that data will be lost. Hayes said she believed there was a “good chance” the evaluation would have shown that FLASH does, indeed, make a positive difference in young people’s lives. Without such evidence, however, it may become more difficult to persuade schools to adopt the curriculum. Hayes said her agency has filed an administrative appeal with the HHS Office of Adolescent Health in the hopes of getting the funding restored.

Hayes said she believes the funding cut is due to both across-the-board budget cuts, but also to an ideological shift on how to address teen pregnancy.

Beyond the particular efforts that the HHS grants were supporting, the abrupt funding cuts also impact both agencies’ overall capacity to prevent teen pregnancy in their communities. In Baltimore, Wen said the funding gap will “create a huge hole in our ability to deliver services.” At Public Health — Seattle & King County, Hayes said the grant supported a significant portion of the agency’s teen pregnancy prevention efforts.

“It does shrink our program,” Hayes said, “and so it’s not without great implications.”

Visit CDC to learn more about the benefits of investing in teen pregnancy prevention.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.

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