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Arkansas lawmakers advance proposal to double state-funded pregnancy resource center grant


Arkansas lawmakers advance proposal to double state-funded pregnancy resource center grant

Apr 18, 2024 | 5:03 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
Arkansas lawmakers advance proposal to double state-funded pregnancy resource center grant
Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville (center), expresses concerns about Arkansas' grant fund for pregnancy resource centers at the Joint Budget Committee's Special Language subcommittee meeting on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)

An Arkansas legislative panel on Thursday approved the doubling of a taxpayer-funded grant to support pregnancy resource centers, which are often religiously affiliated and discourage abortion while encouraging birth.

Republican leaders statewide have held up pregnancy resource centers as critical since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022 and Arkansas subsequently outlawed abortion, with a narrow exception if the pregnant person’s life is at risk.

Arkansas has provided financial support to the centers, sometimes called “crisis pregnancy centers,” since 2022. Adoption agencies and maternity care homes are also eligible for the grant, which totaled $1 million per year in 2022 and 2023.

Senate Bill 64 would increase the grant fund to $2 million for fiscal year 2025, which starts July 1. Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, is sponsoring the bill so that more eligible centers can receive funds, he told both the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday and its Special Language subcommittee on Thursday.

Twenty-three centers received funds from the first year of the grant between September 2022 and January 2023. All but two applied for the grant again in late 2023 and received funds this January, along with six new applicants. About $27,000 remained in the 2023 grant fund after the distributions to the 27 grantees.

There are more than 50 crisis pregnancy centers in Arkansas, according to Arkansas Right to Life.

Some lawmakers have said that they see these facilities as tools to help reduce infant, child and maternal mortality in the state. Arkansas has the nation’s highest maternal mortality rate and the third highest infant mortality rate, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

On both Wednesday and Thursday, Democratic lawmakers questioned whether pregnancy resource centers can address maternal mortality and whether they provide qualified health care.

Pregnancy resource centers tout their services to Arkansas lawmakers

The presence and use of ultrasound machines at these centers can mislead pregnant clients, said Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, on Wednesday.

“They will think that they have gotten prenatal care and gone to the doctor, and then [they] will not seek further prenatal care,” she said.

Payton said in response that he hoped any support during pregnancy would reduce maternal mortality.

The Joint Budget Committee voted to suspend the rule requiring a 24-hour wait between hearings of the bill in order for the Special Language subcommittee to take it up Thursday. Clowney said she was not certain the bill merited a suspension of the rules.

Uses of the grant money

Rep. Denise Garner, a Fayetteville Democrat and retired nurse practitioner, echoed Clowney’s concerns about the potentially misleading aspects of pregnancy resource centers Thursday.

“If we’re going to give the money [to these centers], then let’s figure out what happens to the money and what happens to those women and make sure that they’re seeing someone who is licensed,” Garner said. “…I’m all for supporting the mom and trying to take care of the baby. I think what they’re doing is admirable, but I don’t think it takes the place of certified health care.”

Payton rejected Garner’s request to add language to the bill that would allow the state to track whether the grantees’ clients visit doctors for prenatal care.

“I’m not going to tell a lady that comes looking for a pack of diapers for her newborn that before she can get them, she has to jump through certain hoops and submit herself to government tracking to make sure that she’s going to other healthcare providers,” Payton said. “That is the most anti-freedom way I can imagine.”

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, asked Payton if pregnancy resource centers encourage their clients to seek care from physicians.

“The ones I’m familiar with do,” Payton said.

The only grant recipient so far in Payton’s district is Alpha Centers in Batesville, which received $26,800 in January 2023 and did not apply for the second year of the grant.

The Special Language subcommittee approved SB 64 on a voice vote. Tucker and Garner voted no, and Tucker said he still had concerns about how pregnancy resource centers spend the grant money.

Over the past two years, the centers have used the money for digital and physical advertising, as well as baby supplies, rent and utilities, part-time or full-time staff salaries, and birthing and parenting classes, among other things, according to their applications sent to the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Several applicants requested funds for targeted digital advertising campaigns aimed at people whose online behavior indicates they are facing unplanned pregnancies.

SB 64 will return to the Joint Budget Committee for approval in order to be sent to the Senate floor for consideration.

Earlier in Thursday’s Special Language meeting, the panel approved the addition of a section to a Department of Human Services appropriation bill that would require officials to transfer postpartum Arkansas Medicaid enrollees “into any available Medicaid eligibility category” before their current eligibility ends eight weeks after giving birth.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ordered the creation of this policy in an executive order last month launching a campaign aimed at improving maternal health in Arkansas. The order created a committee tasked with increasing access to quality maternal health services as well as improving education; maternal health before, during and after pregnancy; and statewide coordination for maternal health data and reporting.

The order also launched a pilot program in five counties with high rates of pregnant Arkansans receiving no maternal health care: Crittenden, Garland, Phillips, Polk and Scott.

Sanders’ order came after she was criticized for saying she didn’t believe expanding Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months was necessary.