AmeriCorps, the federal government’s public service arm, is ending its oldest neighborhood health program amid reports that a few members broke the law by offering emotional support, or doula care, to abortion patients.
Although Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokesperson for the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, on Thursday described the Community HealthCorps funding cut as a routine decision in competitive grant process, powerful Republicans in Congress had been gunning for the program following a critical report in April by the inspector general’s office.
The timing of the report, issued by the Office of Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, came just as the agency was reviewing grantees for funding.
The report said that a few AmeriCorps members were authorized by the former director of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), a nonprofit grantee that runs Community HealthCorps, to offer emotional support to abortion patients at three New York City clinics between 2013 and 2015.
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The report also included allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse by NACHC senior management.
A federal statue, the report goes on to say, expressly prohibits the use of AmeriCorps resources to “provid[e] abortion services or referrals for receipt of such services.” The report fails to make clear whether the emotional support, described parenthetically in the report as “doula care,” happened during work or non-work hours.
In April, Republicans were swift to blast NACHC, which has been until now AmeriCorps’ largest grantee, taking in $30 million over the last five years.
The head of the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), demanded the “immediate termination and nonrenewal” of NACHC’s grant in a letter on April 26 to Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. Cole described NACHC’s “blatant disregard for federal law” as “outrageous.”
The anti-choice group the Family Research Council suggested that “AmeriCorpse” was promoting the “abortion industry.”
Warfield, spokesperson for Corporation for National and Community Service, didn’t respond to Rewire‘s emailed questions about a possible political motivation for eliminating the grantee’s funding after a 20-plus year relationship.
Rather, Warfield did reply that the grantee “was unsuccessful in a highly competitive year, and they were not the only longtime grantee to not receive funding.” She also dismissed news reports that Community HealthCorps was AmeriCorps’ sole health-care program.
In a statement Thursday, the National Association of Community Health Centers said it was “disappointed” at the funding cut. It noted that the health-care program had helped 240,000 Americans on average annually, and produced “solid results for the country for over two decades.”
Warfield told BuzzFeed, which broke the news, that more than 400 AmeriCorps clinic volunteers, who earn a small stipend and student loan forgiveness for their participation, will be able to finish their term in Community HealthCorps.
As Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire vice president of law and courts, noted in an April analysis, the inspector general’s report is silent on whether members were offering emotional support to abortion patients during work or non-work hours—an important distinction. Pieklo noted, “AmeriCorps volunteers are free to work as abortion doulas on their own time and not wearing AmeriCorps gear to do so.”
Pieklo also pointed out that the same federal law that bars providing abortion services or referrals permits individuals to “exercise their rights as private citizens and may participate in the activities listed above [such as the abortion restrictions] on their initiative, on non-AmeriCorps time, and using non-CNCS funds.”