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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

The Exception, Not the Oklahoma Rule

May 2, 2016
Weekly Columns

Community health centers are typically held in high regard and enjoy widespread, bipartisan support in Congress. So last week’s revelation that three such facilities in New York had allowed AmeriCorps volunteers to assist in abortion procedures was especially disturbing. Specifically within the AmeriCorps Community HealthCorps program, AmeriCorps volunteers were instructed and trained by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) to act as “doulas” during abortions.

I was deeply concerned when my office learned of the investigation at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which is funded by the subcommittee that I chair in the Appropriations Committee. The incidents under scrutiny were within the AmeriCorps program that is overseen by CNCS and operated under federal grants. Not only is such use of taxpayer dollars morally and ethically dubious, but according to the Serve America Act, allowing AmeriCorps volunteers to participate in such activity is against the law. 

In reaction to these violations, I called on CNCS to immediately terminate and not renew the federal grants received by NACHC to administer the HealthCorps program. I also requested an investigation into all other grantees and sub-grantees of AmeriCorps programs to ensure no other violations exist within the program. Considering that the incidents occurred at community health centers, I also sent a letter to the HHS Office of Inspector General and asked that an investigation be started to ensure community health centers nationwide are abiding by federal restrictions on funding for abortion procedures. 

Numerous pro-life groups and individuals—including the National Right to Life and the Susan B. Anthony List—joined in support of getting to the bottom of the unacceptable incidents. I was encouraged to hear personally from Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who said, “The American people must be assured that abortion services are not insinuating themselves into the CHC network nationwide, which has enjoyed bipartisan support in large part because it has maintained its focus on primary care and prevention.” I agree wholeheartedly.  

While I think it’s important to investigate the operating practices and standards at community health centers nationwide in light of the recent scandal, I still believe in the ability and integrity of those operating in our state. In fact, I believe that Oklahoma could be viewed as the appropriate and responsible model for serving the health needs of communities. And to be clear, the HealthCorps program is not operated by NACHC in Oklahoma.

The core mission of community health centers is to provide and broaden access to quality and affordable care in communities where it would otherwise be scarce. Oklahoma centers do just that and with excellence. But that’s because centers in Oklahoma reflect the values of the local and state communities and the families and households who live there. According to the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, there are more than 80 community health center locations across the state that provide comprehensive and integrated primary care. In 2014, there were more than 176,500 patients served by community health centers in Oklahoma, roughly a third of which were children. This invaluable access to care—especially in rural communities—is beneficial to both patients and the entire healthcare system because it actually results in cost-savings. For example, these centers are able to provide an affordable alternative to what would otherwise be outrageous emergency room bills. 

Like others, I remain outraged by what happened in New York, but I also believe that the incidents there are aberrations and certainly not the rule or standard by which community health center sites are or ever will be operated in Oklahoma. New York is the exception, but Oklahoma sets the standard that should be the rule for all other community health centers across the country.

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