LITTLE ROCK — A state lawmaker told a legislative panel Friday he would seek a state audit of two contracts the state Department of Health has with Planned Parenthood because the department cannot locate the original grant applications.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, also suggested that some Democrats on the panel were turning a "blind eye" to the concerns he raised about the Planned Parenthood grants in light of allegations of misuse of taxpayer money by the organization in other states.
Planned Parenthood provides educational programs on sexually transmitted disease prevention in some Little Rock schools under federal grants totaling $252,000 a year. Rapert asked the Legislative Council’s Review Subcommittee to review the grants.
Rapert, a staunch opponent of Planned Parenthood and the abortion services the organization provides, said the two grants were of particular concern because of lawsuits involving Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Iowa and Oklahoma. The umbrella organization also manages chapters in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Oklahoma.
In Iowa, a former manager of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic has filed a lawsuit alleging fraudulent or ineligible claims for reimbursement and unacceptable standards for medical practice.
In Oklahoma, that state’s department of health decided not to renew its Women, Infants and Children contract with Planned Parenthood after allegations of questionable billing practices in the health and nutrition program. Planned Parenthood has filed a lawsuit to stop the department from discontinuing its involvement in the WIC program.
"There are several cases ongoing across the country, two particularly which deal with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, where there have been allegations of either misuse of taxpayer funding, overbilling of Medicaid by your entity and also inflating reimbursement through the WIC program," Rapert told a Planned Parenthood lawyer who testified before the subcommittee Friday.
Attorney Tamya Cox declined to comment on the ongoing legal matters in Iowa and Oklahoma, but she said the organization has done nothing illegal.
"Anytime that any type of misuse of funds allegation is raised we are always making sure that we are doing everything we can possibly do to either alleviate that concern and show how responsible we are, or at least stand up for ourselves as to why these allegations are unfounded," Cox said.
Rapert said he asked the former Iowa abortion clinic manager to attend Friday’s hearing but she could not make it because of the weather. Before the hearing, he requested permission to play a recorded statement from the plaintiff about the lawsuit to the subcommittee. Some members objected, in part because they would not be able to ask questions if the plaintiff did not appear in person.
After consulting with a lawyer for the Bureau of Legislative Research and others, the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Randy Laverty, D-Jasper, turned down Rapert’s request.
Robert Brech, an attorney for the state Department of Health, said both of the STD education grants are monitored and that Planned Parenthood of the Heartland is not paid until it turns in all receipts and documentation of its work.
One of the grants is for $52,000 and allows Planned Parenthood to provide syphilis elimination education to teenagers in two Little Rock school districts. The federally funded grant expires at the end of this year and the Health Department has requested permission to extend the grant for one year, which would be an additional $13,000, until the grant can be opened for bids.
The other grant is for $200,000 and provides for HIV prevention education in two Little Rock public schools. The Health Department has asked that the grant be extended six months, which would cost an additional $20,000, until the grant can be opened for bids.
During Friday’s meeting, Rapert asked why state health officials failed to provide the Family Council, a conservative Christian group, with copies of Planned Parenthood’s initial grant applications for the programs. Brech said the original applications could not be located but that all other information about the grants had been provided. He said Department of Health officials were continuing to look for the original documents.
Rapert said he was troubled that the original applications could not be located and that an audit of the grants was in order.
"What I would like to have happen, and I’m speaking with Legislative Audit to do this, is to ensure that the Arkansas Department of Health be able to produce documentation related to these two particular grants," Rapert said.
Then he added, "I find it very, very interesting that I have colleagues that want to turn a blind eye when we cannot produce the document that even authorizes this grant and will sit here and have at their fingertips information about these ongoing lawsuits and litigation and literally not try to hold your organization accountable."
After the meeting, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she was surprised and disappointed by Rapert’s comments, noting that lawmakers agreed to hold Friday’s hearing in the first place to learn more about the legal matters Rapert raised before making any decisions about the contracts. She said he owes the committee an apology.
"The reason we are having this hearing is, when Sen. Rapert and I talked about how we could come to a compromise, the thing that I suggested was that we have this hearing today so that he could get his questions answered," Elliott said. "It’s like a lot of the other things out there, they are allegations that are unfounded. It is just parallel with these allegations against Planned Parenthood that are not backed up by anything except somebody has filed a lawsuit," Elliott said.