AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This month, 81 institutions around the country received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It said that federal funding that they've been getting for teen pregnancy prevention programs and research is going away. HHS quietly pulled the plug on a five-year grant program started under President Obama, a loss of more than $213 million. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting broke this story.
Kelly Wilson is among those who got one of the letters. She leads a teen pregnancy prevention project at Texas A&M University. It partners with groups all over the U.S. And one goal is to increase teens' access to health care. Wilson says the letter came as a surprise. I asked her if she and her colleagues are panicking.
KELLY WILSON: There is somewhat of a panic because these initiatives need to continue. And while I know that there are foundations that support the work in teen pregnancy and in decreasing unplanned birthrates, it's also been important to be supported at the federal level. So figuring out how we move forward in the next 12 months or so is creating a little bit of panic. But I think that everybody's being thoughtful in the work that they do.
CORNISH: Right. This was a federal program called the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program under President Obama. But what did that mean on the ground? Like, how will your work be curtailed?
WILSON: Well, we've been working with 17 different organizations. So from this point forward, we're having to think about cutting those relationships which we know overall is going to impact teens across the nation.
CORNISH: Give us an example. Is that giving out condoms? Is that classroom education? What does that mean?
WILSON: So we've actually been working with these programs to develop new or innovative program efforts and really incorporating the teens' or the youth voice in their program efforts.
CORNISH: There is a new assistant secretary for Health and Human Services. Her name is Valerie Huber. The Center for Investigative Reporting has pointed out that she's a big name in the movement that advocates for teaching abstinence-only sex education. I think she refers to this as sexual risk avoidance. Is there a change in the atmosphere for programs such as yours?
WILSON: I think that this entire cut to eliminate the evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, to eliminate Title X Family Planning Programs definitely shows that there is a change in the atmosphere at multiple levels, not only the presidential level but with this assistant secretary for health that you are referring to.
CORNISH: Now, the overall teen birthrate is down dramatically, something like 40 percent since its high in the '60s. And some of that is the decline that we saw in the last eight years during the recession. Do we still need this kind of program?
WILSON: We absolutely need these kind of programs. Even though we've seen decreases in teen birthrates, there are still different populations that have high teen birthrates that need to be impacted. Hispanic girls are still more likely to experience teen birth compared to their white counterpart.
CORNISH: Right. So more likely, but the decline's there for that population is - it's still pretty big.
WILSON: We have seen the declines, which is great. But we can also attribute these declines to the evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs. And there is still room for improvement to make sure that young people are experiencing pregnancies when they are ready to and that they have access to health care options to make sure that they don't become pregnant in the first place.
CORNISH: Kelly Wilson is a professor at Texas A&M and the lead researcher for their Innovative Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs project. Thanks for speaking with us.
WILSON: Thank you.
CORNISH: And we asked the Health and Human Services Department for a comment. A spokesperson only confirmed that the grants are ending.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTIONS:1. In the introduction to this story, the Reveal podcast and radio program is said to be from the Center for Investigative Reporting. In fact, Reveal is a co-production of the center and Public Radio Exchange (PRX).2. In this report, we mistakenly refer to Valerie Huber as an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, she is chief of staff at the department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.]
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