Oklahoma lawmakers try for second year to expand pregnancy help
Oklahoma lawmakers continue to be frustrated with a vendor hired to help pregnant women for expanded services under the state’s Choosing Childbirth Act.
The slow pace of getting money to nonprofit organizations that provide crisis pregnancy care means that almost $8 million is sitting unused in a state account. Oklahoma’s abortion ban and the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade in June 2022 adds to the urgency to provide more flexibility under the state’s Choosing Childbirth Act.
Senate Bill 538 would let the Oklahoma State Department of Health send payments directly to qualified organizations providing pregnancy care, including for mental health services and transportation. It would leave an existing vendor in place, but allow for flexibility for more pregnancy services from additional vendors.
The bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said it remains one of his personal priorities this session. The bill would need to pass on the House floor by Thursday’s deadline to stay alive. The proposal is similar to SB 1522, which failed at the same stage in last year’s session.
“We want to open that up and make sure money gets to go where it’s supposed to go,” Treat said last week in a media availability. “We’ve been dissatisfied with the progress of the current, third-party, private administrator. I’m very passionate about making sure those dollars actually go where we want, so I’m watching that one closely.”
The Health Department said the vendor, the Oklahoma Pregnancy Care Network, predicted it could help up to 10,000 pregnant women annually. Tracking data shows just 3,032 women have been helped from July 2020 to January 2023.
Lawmakers have also expressed concerns about administrative expenses of the vendor to the religious-affiliated nonprofits providing services under the law. A snapshot of spending shows administrative expenses were 40% of the total expended in the past three years.
“With the regulatory environment we’ve created over abortion and birth, that money we’ve been putting aside for Choosing Childbirth needs to be disseminated out to crisis pregnancy centers all over the state,” the bill’s House author, Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, said Tuesday. “Right now, those funds are just dribbling out, and it should be more like a stream. They should be exhausting that money every year.”
Part of the problem is that services need to be provided before the state reimburses under the Choosing Childbirth Act. Few of the nonprofits contracted with the vendor have the cash flow to provide those services up front.
An internal audit report last year by the Health Department showed the Oklahoma Pregnancy Care Network had some questionable administrative expenses and was slow to provide help to eligible nonprofits. Its leaders at the time acknowledged the slow start but said it was at a “tipping point” and poised to grow exponentially across the state.
Madeline Craig, executive director for the Oklahoma Pregnancy Care Network, said the organization didn’t see a need for the latest legislation.
“OPCN is on track to spend all $3 million awarded under the contract, and current projections exceed the contracted amount for this (fiscal year),” Craig said Tuesday.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.