Updated, 8:14 a.m. 10/8/19
Among Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s list of line item vetoes for the Fiscal Year 2020 state budget was $700,000 for a controversial Pennsylvania-based state contractor that operates anti-abortion programs in Michigan.
In January, the Advance first reported that the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint against Harrisburg, Pa.-based Real Alternatives, questioning how the organization spent Michiganders’ tax dollars.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesman Bob Wheaton said the $700,000* line item was for a pregnancy and parenting support services program for which the Legislature has previously allocated funds. In the past, that appropriation has been associated with Real Alternatives.
“From MDHHS’s perspective, the program has been of questionable benefit to families and it’s been difficult for us to get data on the program to gauge its effectiveness,” Wheaton said.
The primary purpose of Real Alternatives’ Pregnancy and Parenting Support Services Program, according to its website, is to “provide core services consisting of information, education and counseling that promotes childbirth instead of abortion and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting.”
Real Alternatives has operated programs in other states, including Pennsylvania and Indiana.
In 2013, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder directed DHHS’ predecessor, the Michigan Department of Community Health, to hire Real Alternatives and carry out a $700,000 pilot for the Michigan Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program (MPPSP) modeled after its program in Pennsylvania. The contract with Michigan was increased to $800,000 in 2015, according to Real Alternatives’s website in January, but the page has since been taken down.
Real Alternatives has “served over 6,500 women at over 25,700 visits” since starting up the Michigan program in 2013, again per its website page in January, but is no longer online. The group has won praise from anti-abortion advocates, including Right to Life of Michigan.
When asked about this, a Real Alternatives spokesperson said via email, “We periodically post to the website, when we reach certain milestones of ‘clients served to date.’ We take down old stats periodically.”
In the complaint filed with Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Auditor General Doug Ringler, CFA alleged that Real Alternatives fell short of its goals. The group “initially promised to serve 2,000 women during the first year of the program, but over the four and a half years the MPPSP has been in place, only 3,771 pregnant [Michigan] women have received any services,” according to the complaint.
CFA alleged in its complaint that Real Alternatives appears to be “skimming state funds by withholding 3 percent of the MPPSP funding intended for subcontractors for its own private, unspecified use, even though Real Alternatives’ administrative expenses are separately provided for in the MPPSP contract.”
“To the extent that these offices might take action, those investigations are often internal and confidential,” said Alice Huling, CFA counsel.
Real Alternatives has a well-documented history of using taxpayer money for private use, according to D.C.-based Equity Forward, a watchdog group that tracks anti-reproductive health actors. The group flew a banner and rented a billboard criticizing Real Alternatives during the Mackinac Policy Conference in May.
“Real Alternatives is a program that provides more benefits to the executives of an out-of-state contractor than it does for the people of Michigan,” said Mary Alice Carter, senior advisor for Equity Forward who wrote a guest column for the Advance in June.
Through a written statement, Real Alternatives told the Advance that it is “perplexed” to learn of Whitmer’s veto:
“The Michigan taxpayer’s investment of $3.3 million dollars since 2013 in funding the work of Catholic Charities and Pregnancy Support Centers has provided life-affirming counseling, mentoring and support to over 8,700 women during their unexpected pregnancy. During that time, 17 percent of women served through the program, reported that someone pressured them to abort. The program provided a counselor to be with the woman to empower her to overcome obstacles and pressures in her life from the moment she found out she was pregnant to 12 months after the birth of her baby.”
In Michigan, Real Alternatives was tasked with carrying out the Michigan Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program. However, Equity Forward argues that the firm has used the state’s tax dollars to bankroll its expansion across state lines.
Additionally, the top two executives at Real Alternatives boosted their salaries to a combined $425,000 after the firm missed its state-mandated goals, serving fewer than 1,000 Michigan residents each year. Real Alternatives also failed to meet its benchmarks — only providing services to 3,771 pregnant people in the four and a half years it has operated in Michigan, when it promised to serve 2,000 in its first year alone, Equity Forward said.
“Gov. Whitmer showed she is serious about cutting handouts to lobbyists and vendors when she ran her veto pen over this wasteful line item that failed to provide the services it promised while paying its top executives almost half a million [dollars] a year,” Carter said. “State budgets are tight and there is no room for spending on programs with questionable financial practices and poor results. Like Gov. Rick Snyder before her who also zeroed out this program, Gov. Whitmer recognized the failures and follies of this program.”
The Whitmer veto, however, does have critics. Right to Life of Michigan President Barbara Listing blasted the decision.
“Governor Whitmer is now an abortion ideologue,” Listing said. “If this program included funding for students to have abortions instead of helping them parent through school, she would have never touched it.”
Tom Hickson, Michigan Catholic Conference vice president for public policy, called the process “disappointing.”
“It is the hope of this organization that in forthcoming negotiations the Governor and legislature can work together to restore this critical funding. Michigan citizens should never be used as pawns in a months-long state budget partisan battle,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re looking at today with these line-item vetoes.”
Disclosure: Equity Forward is a project of the Hopewell Fund, a Washington D.C.-based 501(c)(3), as is the North Carolina-based The Newsroom, which supports the Michigan Advance. There is no coordination or relationship of any kind between the Advance and Equity Forward.
Correction: This story originally contained an incorrect amount for the Real Alternatives line item.