Health and Human Services Defends Grant Denial Decision

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services was grilled by a congressional panel about possible political interference in a Catholic agency being denied a federal grant for helping trafficking victims.

WASHINGTON — Charges of anti-Catholic bias were leveled during a Dec. 1 congressional hearing that scrutinized the federal government’s decision to end its funding relationship with a Catholic agency that serves trafficking victims.

The three-hour hearing that examined charges of a politicized grant-review process at the Department of Health and Human Services featured heated rhetoric from GOP congressmen, who asserted that political interference had led the federal agency to reject a grant proposal from a top-rated Catholic agency. An HHS official defended the agency’s decision to award grants to two agencies that received lower scores in an independent review.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, charged that HHS’ rejection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ proposal illustrated how “the federal grant-making process has been politicized.”

Issa stated that the committee’s investigation into the process used by HHS’ “Office of Refugee Resettlement to award grants” concluded that “the most experienced and top-rated national applicant was not selected, and lower-ranked organizations were somehow funded.
“The process was delayed for months while the agency struggled to find ways to inject new criteria into the process and — of great concern — the judgment of experienced, career-level professionals was discarded when political appointees chose to overrule transparent decision-making.”

The skewed outcome, said Issa, appears “to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs.”

GOP members on the committee pointed to data supplied by HHS to bolster Issa’s harsh judgment, noting that the Obama administration approved an applicant that scored 20 points lower than the Catholic agency on an internal agency review.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, defended the decision to award grants to two agencies that earned low ratings by HHS investigators, describing all three agencies as “well-regarded.”

He confirmed that officials made their decision based on “which organizations were best able to serve all the needs of the victims.” Thus, the “unwillingness of the bishops to agree to provide the full array of services raised questions as to whether they could meet the full objectives” of the program.

Suspicions Confirmed

The HHS National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Program provides case management to trafficking victims to assist them with rehabilitation and protection from traffickers. Since 2006, under a different per-capita contract model, the USCCB’s program received generous federal support to oversee a network of service providers assisting trafficking victims.

Sheldon acknowledged that the criteria for evaluating successful grant applicants had changed. Last spring, the Obama administration announced a new preference for grantees that provided the full range of reproductive health services — even though victims reportedly had not criticized the Catholic agency for failing to provide such services.

According to figures supplied to the House committee by HHS, the USSCB still scored second highest among the four candidates — despite the Church’s refusal to accommodate the new criteria. When its proposal was rejected in October, the USCCB threatened to sue the federal government, citing anti-Catholic bias.

Sheldon, however, backed up HHS’ new priorities, citing a 2009 HHS study “which concluded that trafficking victims frequently contract sexually transmitted infections or become pregnant,” and thus require access to the full range of family-planning services.

“HHS funds only one grantee per geographic area,” he stated. “These three organizations will enable trafficking victims to re-take control of their lives by making informed health-care decisions, in consultation with doctors, based on their own circumstances, values and faith.”

Asked to comment on the outcome of the congressional hearings, and a possible lawsuit, Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the USCCB spokeswoman, said the hearings bolstered the USCCB’s claim that anti-Catholic bias was at work. But she was not prepared to make any other announcement.

“We had been seeking this information about the scoring of the four applicants under the Freedom of Information Act and hadn’t received it. We now have the documents entered into the record that explain why and how this travesty occurred,” said Sister Mary Ann.

“What’s productive is that it proved our suspicions. The discrimination against the conference couldn’t be more obvious,” she said.

“The top applicant scored 90, the USCCB 89, the third 74, and the last 69. They gave grants to agencies that scored way below us. You don’t see real evidence or concern for the real needs of the victims.”

Missed Opportunity?

Steve Wagner, a former director of the HHS trafficking-victims assistance effort from 2003-2006 and the architect of the USCCB program, expressed “disappointment” that Issa and other GOP congressmen didn’t press harder to get all the facts out about the actual workings of the HHS grant process.

“At the close of the hearing, Congressman Issa made it sound like there was nothing to be done about this issue and that he’ll work to stop the politicization of the grant-review process in the future,” said Wagner.

“I think the House should challenge the decision and see that the USCCB receives a portion of the funds equal to the highest dollar value of the highest award,” he added.

“There were a couple of key points that didn’t get out. No. 1: Sheldon was not asked pointedly if HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked him not to fund the USCCB program or expressed a preference,” said Wagner.

He also suggested that GOP congressmen should have raised questions about how the technical aspects of the grant-review process were addressed or explained in the statements by HHS officials.

“After HHS sent applications back, citing deficiencies, and asked for revisions, why was there no formal review of the revised applications by a professional panel?” Wagner asked. “And since HHS had originally planned to approve five grant applicants, why did they only fund three out of four qualified agencies — even though Sheldon described all the applicants as ‘roughly equivalent’?”

“They should now conduct an independent evaluation of the revised applications, submit them to a new scoring panel, and make a funding decision based on objective scores,” Wagner concluded.

While defending its decision to reject the USCCB grant, HHS told The Washington Post that “Catholic groups have received at least $800 million in HHS funding to provide social services since the mid-1990s,” with an increase during the Obama administration.

Sister Mary Ann of the USCCB dismissed that argument as irrelevant. “These amounts are not gifts. They are payments in exchange for services. The total amount of grants by any administration is not a sign that it loves or hates Catholics, but a sign that it wants the highest-quality, lowest-cost social services, which is what we provide,” she said. “The grants don’t buy a free pass to discriminate against us elsewhere.”

Wagner also rejected the argument that increased federal funding proved that religious discrimination or partisan politics were not involved.

“The secretary of this huge federal department only has so many hours in the day to intervene in funding decisions. My guess is that other funding decisions went through normal procedures and were left to professional staff because of history and demonstrative experience.”

For now, Wagner still holds out hope that the House may still exert additional pressure to force a reversal by the HHS.

The key, he said, is whether official documents can be located that prove specific laws were violated.

“Right now, Issa clearly thinks it’s a done deal. But the committee is expecting additional documents they have not yet received, and that could possibly change everything.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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