Senate requests details on HHS denial of grant to bishops

CNA Kathleen Sebelius CNA US Catholic News 11 11 11 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

Twenty-seven U.S. senators requested information on how the Department of Health and Human Services graded applicants for anti-trafficking grants and asked why the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services was denied one.

CNA obtained a copy of a Nov. 9 letter—signed by legislators including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—which gives department secretary Kathleen Sebelius until Nov. 18 to ensure that the department respected the bishops' conscience rights “and did not violate current law in awarding this grant.”

The senators asked for “a full explanation of your department’s decision” and whether the bishops' “position regarding abortion referrals was a factor in your department’s decision making.”

They also requested a list of grant applicants, their applications, scores and comments from an independent review, as well as all department documents and communications related to the funding decision.

From 2006 to 2011, the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services held a federal contract to provide food, housing, medical services and other aid to trafficking victims in more than 44 states. The bishops’ group was consistently given excellent ratings.

New instructions for grant applications in 2011 indicated that the grant program would give “strong preference” to applicants that would offer referrals for “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

In keeping with Catholic teaching, Migration and Refugee Services does not offer referrals for abortion or contraception.

The group was denied their bid for a new contract, and questions were raised amid allegations that the grant process had been manipulated.

A Washington Post article on Nov. 1 suggested that senior political appointees at the department awarded the grants to other groups, ignoring the recommendation of career staffers that an award be given to the bishops’ group, based on its excellent scores from an independent review board. 

According to the article, some staff members in the Department of Health and Human Services had protested that the process was “unfair and politicized,” saying that it was “clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, SM, director of media relations for the U.S bishops’ conference, told CNA on Nov. 11 that the bishops’ group was passed up for funding while two others that received grants had “scored so low they did not make the cutoff when evaluated by an independent review board.”

Sr. Walsh said that Migration and Refugee Services met all of the required criteria laid out by the Funding Opportunity Announcement explaining how the selection would be made.

In addition, she said, the group met the criteria to be given special preference, based on their experience and ability to serve underserved populations in a variety of locations, including those with high incidences of trafficking. 

The only specification that the bishops’ group did not meet was a willingness to offer referrals for abortion and contraception.

However, Sr. Walsh explained, that element was not a requirement, but rather a matter of “strong preference,” meaning that the Migration and Refugee Services should not have been disqualified because of it.

In a Nov. 7 blog post for the bishops’ conference, Sr. Walsh charged that the department’s action violated an executive order issued by President Obama in 2010.

The order stated that decisions about federal aid awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof.”

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Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have denied charges of manipulation and said that the department followed standard procedure in awarding the grant.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families, said that the awarding of grants is based upon a number of factors, “including, but not limited to, the scores given by reviewers.”

He said that according to standard protocol, the review scores are merely “an advisory factor for the consideration of the program and agency leadership who always serve as the official decision makers on grant awards.”

Sheldon said that he is “fully confident that the organizations best suited to provide comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking were awarded the grants for these services.”

Sr. Walsh responded to Sheldon’s assertion by maintaining that “experience indicates that career staff generally make awards pursuant to the recommendations from these review panels.”

She noted that career staffers had been upset by the decision and indicated that it had deviated from the normal procedure.

Sr. Walsh said that the bishops’ conference filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 27. The Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the request but has not yet provided the requested information. 

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