Michigan Women Deserve Real Care, Not Real Alternatives
By: Alice Huling, Campaign for Accountability, September 23, 2019
As the summer wraps up, budget debates in Lansing continue. One contentious item of debate is Michigan’s continued funding of Real Alternatives to run the Michigan Parenting and Pregnancy Support Program. The program is supposed to offer women alternatives to abortion by providing pregnancy support and assistance to new parents. Yet, the numbers of abortions performed in Michigan have remained consistent throughout the program’s six-year existence.
While positions on abortion are often deeply entrenched, people across the abortion divide can agree that state funded services offered to pregnant women and new parents should be well administered. My organization, Campaign for Accountability, conducted a months-long investigation of Real Alternatives and found that the Pennsylvania-based organization simply repeated in Michigan the programming it began implementing in Pennsylvania fifteen years ago, without considering Michigan’s specific population and needs. Unfortunately for Michiganders, community-based support services are not one size fits all.
For instance, Real Alternatives’ planned to advertise its hotline with ads on public buses, like it had done elsewhere. Health department officials informed the organization that Michigan is more of a “car state” with relatively low bus ridership, even in its cities. Real Alternatives’ failure to consider where its targeted demographic might learn of its services would have wasted taxpayer money while failing to connect Michigan women with pregnancy support services.
Further, without knowing or understanding its potential clientele, Real Alternatives committed to serving 2,000 women in the project’s first year, but managed to see only 403. Its numbers have remained unimpressive since. Over the first four years of the program, when Real Alternatives should have served a minimum of 8,000 women, it actually served 5,104, only 3,234 of whom were pregnant. Similarly, by 2018, Real Alternatives had only partnered with seven service providers — far short of the 25 partnerships it had pledged to establish in the state.
Real Alternatives has also made it difficult for Michigan officials to gauge the program’s overall effectiveness, repeatedly failing to tell officials the types of state and local services for which program participants were referred.
Most seriously, Real Alternatives appears to be skimming state funds intended for Michigan service providers. A review of Real Alternatives’ financial statements reveals that the organization is collecting a “Program Development and Advancement Fee” related to the Michigan program but not provided for nor disclosed in its Michigan contracts. Real Alternatives extracted the same fee from a similar program it runs in Pennsylvania. When challenged by Pennsylvania officials, the organization claimed the money is used to promote the organization’s development locally and nationally, meaning taxpayer dollars are being diverted to expand Real Alternatives’ presence into new markets rather than spent on agreed upon programming.
If Michigan legislators truly want to offer Michigan women pregnancy and parenting support, at a minimum they should require Real Alternatives to meet base-level program targets, insist Real Alternatives be transparent with government officials, and prohibit the administrator from pocketing money earmarked for provision of program services.
Real Alternatives has had six years to prove it can run Michigan’s parenting and pregnancy support program, but the evidence shows the group is not up to the challenge. Legislators can be morally opposed to abortion and still recognize Real Alternatives is ill-equipped to manage a taxpayer-funded program aimed at reducing abortion. To contend otherwise is to ignore Real Alternatives’ record and limit Michigan women’s access to beneficial maternal and reproductive services.
Michigan women deserve better.
Alice Huling is Counsel for Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability.