Hennepin County sued the federal government Thursday to retain funding for its nationally recognized teenage pregnancy prevention program.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services terminated funding that would have provided $214 million for Hennepin County and 80 other grant receivers. Five-year grants that initially had been approved through June 2020 now will end in June 2018.
In addition, if counties want to reapply for new funding, they must shift the focus of their prevention programs to abstinence education.
Hennepin County will lose $1.5 million each year, a cost Commissioner Mike Opat said the board could only partly replace.
From 2007 to 2016, teen pregnancy in the county has been reduced by 64 percent, from 1,152 to 418. In 2016, the county's birthrate was lower than state and U.S. averages.
"This is something we are resolute in fighting to keep," Opat said. "The proof is in the numbers. This safeguards the future of both those who would have been teen mothers and their children. The federal government made a deal with us, and we planned accordingly."
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, asks the court to declare the government's termination of the grant unlawful and to reinstate it through 2020. The Health and Human Services Department has seven days to respond to the county's motion, and the court then has 21 days to hold a hearing.
Several other grant receivers have launched similar legal actions, and judges in Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia last week ordered those grants reprocessed. The judges ruled that the terminations violated administrative policy and were arbitrary and capricious.
If funding isn't restored, the suit claims the county will have to lay off 20 health educators contracted by the county and possibly close a clinic. In preparation, the county is attempting to train as many teachers as possible on the curriculum.
Last week, the Trump administration laid out the new requirements for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP). Applicants now must choose between two program tools: a sexual risk avoidance model, which encourages teens to avoid sex, or a sexual risk reduction model, designed to reduce sexual behaviors in teens who may already be active. The guidelines don't say that groups can't teach about contraception and safe sex, but they can no longer be the focus.
TPPP was created under former President Barack Obama in 2010 and has funded organizations working to end teen pregnancy through a variety of programs, including some that were abstinence-focused.
Hennepin County received its first grant in 2010, and started Better Together Hennepin with it. The goal was to provide healthy youth development opportunities, connections to caring adults, evidence-based sex education and accessible reproductive health services.
The grant focused on evaluation of the effectiveness of two different sexual health curricula in 28 schools and 17 health clinics. The most successful criteria would then be added to a list of evidence-based programs maintained by the Health and Human Service Department's Office of Adolescent Health, which provided the TPPP grants.
The county cultivated relationships with health care providers and school districts to position it for the second phase of the program, which focused on geographical areas with the highest birth rates. The goal was to reduce teen birth rates by 30 percent in Brooklyn Center, Robbinsdale, Richfield, and central and north Minneapolis, in areas experiencing the highest rates of teen pregnancy, as well as significant race and poverty disparities.
In 2015, Hennepin County officials received a congratulatory letter from the Office of Adolescent Health saying it looked forward to working with them for the next five years. The county's approach goes well beyond telling teens how to use a condom or how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, said Kathy Wick, who manages Better Together Hennepin.
"What we are doing is working so well," she said. "We offer abstinence as an option, but we know it doesn't work. We would be going backward using an approach we know will not service our students well."
The program, Wick said, helps kids understand relationships, consent and peer pressure while they learn how to identify sexual violence. More than 12,000 students in 33 schools have received the program's curriculum, and Wick said she expects that total to double in the next two years.
Last summer, Minnesota Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz were among 148 House Democrats who sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price demanding an explanation for the decision to cancel the grants, which came just three months after Congress had voted to provide full funding for the latest grants.
Opat said he's angry that the Trump administration changed the terms of the grant with little notice to county officials and no explanation.
"We just can't sit idly by and accept it," he said.