(Pic by abarefoot)

Department of Health records obtained by The Florida Independent show that oversight of Florida’s state-funded crisis pregnancy clinic chain mainly rests in the hands of the two organizations contracted by the state to run those clinics — the nonprofit Florida Pregnancy Care Network and the for-profit Uzzell Group.

That means the Department of Health has little direct insight into how public money is being spent at 79 crisis pregnancy centers around the state, and if those dollars are being used to disseminate disputed science on abortion or to promote religious content.

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According to the documents we examined, when performing oversight, the Department of Health relies on the paperwork of both the Pregnancy Care Network and the Uzzell Group, the two organizations that since 2006 have spent at least $8 million of public money managing the Florida Pregnancy Support Services Program. The Uzzell Group, a Tallahassee-based advertising agency, manages 19 centers; the Pregnancy Care Network handles 60.

A 2006 Department of Health program evaluation states that the crisis pregnancy centers must comply with a strict policy of not “promoting, referring or counseling for abortion,” and explains that the clinics promote the well-being of Florida’s “women and families by coordinating and enhancing efforts of existing local organizations that solely promote and encourage childbirth.”

Last month, The Florida Independent documented at length the fact that pregnancy centers distribute information that links abortion to grave mental health consequences like clinical depression, suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse, information that has been disputed by scientific organizations.

The Department of Health provided us with a department form that includes a checklist of rules providers must comply with. This checklist requires providers to offer medically accurate information.

“The Department requires the centers to provide accurate materials and information to all clients served under the Florida Pregnancy Support Services Program,” writes the Department of Health’s Rob Hayes via email. “The centers must provide the reference source for any and all statements of a medical nature. Reference sources may include, but are not limited to, entities such as the Centers for Disease Control; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and peer reviewed health science journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. The centers are required to review and update the information on a yearly basis.”

Department of Health contract managers receive copies of Pregnancy Care Network and Uzzell Group site reviews and sign off on them, yet the department appears to have no direct way to verify if the centers have done anything to develop a procedure to review their information’s medical accuracy.

Pregnancy Care Network site reviews for 2009-2010 show that 27 pregnancy centers needed to develop a procedure for reviewing and verifying the accuracy of materials and information given to clients.

In the case of one site review, performed at a Respect Life clinic in Fort Lauderdale, the Pregnancy Care Network found that the clinic needs to “develop a written procedure and policy for review of all information and written material” given to clients. Despite this conclusion, the Department of Health on its checklist review indicated it was satisfied that the Respect Life center was ensuring “medical accuracy.”

In August, we obtained brochures at Respect Life’s Hollywood office that contained information on alleged links between induced abortion and mental health crisis — dated as far back as 1981, 1987 and 1989. There is no mention that scientific organizations have disputed those links.

Questions about the crisis pregnancy centers’ scientific credibility are not the only ones raised by the Department of Health documents. Others suggest the department does not have a way to ensure that public money is being spent on clinical services, and not on evangelizing.

Many of the Florida crisis pregnancy centers are faith-based initiatives, and some are located inside churches, such as the 93rd Street Community Development Corporation, a ministry of the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church. Respect Life centers are supported by the Archdiocese of Miami, and Catholic Charities centers by dioceses throughout Central and North Florida.

Records indicate that the majority of program funds are spent on “face to face direct service” at the pregnancy centers. In a 2006 “program evaluation,” one provider discussed the difficulty in separating the center’s religious and clinical goals: “It can sometimes be difficult to ‘bifricate’ [sic] the FPSS and the gospel. The support services are still provided to the client but it is not billed if faith is shared.”

“The Department requires services to be provided in a manner that is non-coercive and does not include religious content,” Hayes writes, adding, “In the event additional program services are offered by an organization that do not meet these requirements, services funded with these funds must be clearly separated from other services within the organization.”

But the department has not indicated how it verifies this separation in funding in an environment full of religious rhetoric.

Heartbeat of Miami, a center managed by the Uzzell Group, uses religious content as part of the information offered to clients. A PowerPoint presentation downloaded from the Heartbeat website lays out the six core values of crisis pregnancy centers, “the Supremacy of the Gospel” chief among them.

The PowerPoint, along with at least two videos available on Heartbeat’s website, makes clear reference to religious instruction and links Heartbeat of Miami to the faith-based organizations CareNet and Heartbeat International — which distribute religious information in print and online.

What seems problematic is that the Department of Health, charged with administering this crisis pregnancy center network, appears to depend on a paperwork system maintained by the Pregnancy Care Network and the Uzzell Group in order to verify whether taxpayer dollars are being spent on science and not religious rhetoric.

Efforts to gain further clarity on the Department of Health’s oversight process have so far gone unanswered.

Travis Pillow contributed to reporting on this story.

Florida Pregnancy Support Services request for proposal:

Florida Pregnancy Support Services RFP

Florida Pregnancy Care Network Respect Life site review:

Florida Pregnancy Care Network Respect Life Site Review

Checklist for FPSSP Direct Service Provider:

Checklist for FPSSP Direct Service Provider

Heartbeat of Miami PowerPoint presentation:

Heartbeat of Miami

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