After Abortion Controversy, AmeriCorps’ Health Program Is Shutting Down
AmeriCorps’ large and beloved federal program for training health care workers is shutting down after 20 years, after a run-in with abortion politics.
AmeriCorps, the federal public service program, is ending its biggest effort to train health care workers after two decades of sending volunteers to help poor health clinics. The beloved program’s shuttering has been whispered about since April, when it was dragged into a political fight over abortion.
Best known for training teacher volunteers in underserved schools, AmeriCorps has also trained more than 7,300 members at health clinics nationwide as part of the Community HealthCorps program run by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) nonprofit based in Bethesda, Maryland. They give HIV tests, educate asthma and diabetes patients, remind the elderly to take medicine, and perform a myriad of other tasks now at more than 200 thinly staffed health clinics in 17 states and Washington D.C.
But that ends this year. On Thursday, BuzzFeed News has learned, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the $1 billion federal agency that runs AmeriCorps, will announce the program’s closure.
Community HealthCorps “was our longest-running health care program,” CNCS spokesperson Samantha Warfield told BuzzFeed News, confirming that NACHC failed to secure renewal of its grant this year. The grant has given $30 million to the nonprofit over the last five years.
More than 400 AmeriCorps volunteers, who receive a small stipend and student loan forgiveness in return for their service, are still in Community HealthCorps and will be able to finish out their term at clinics, Warfield said.
In April, an Inspector General report concluded that Community HealthCorps members had provided emotional support and doula care to abortion patients at three New York City clinics, in violation of federal law. It also found that allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse in the program had been ignored.
Following the report, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads the Congressional spending committee with oversight of AmeriCorps, called for suspending the health clinic program. “I am outraged by the terrible misuse of taxpayer dollars,” he said at the time. AmeriCorps indeed suspended the program.
Warfield said that Americorps is not renewing the Community HealthCorps grant mostly because of inadequate proposed measurements of effectiveness in the grant application made in 2015. She said it had nothing to do with the investigation or the members who had aided in abortion procedures.
Claudia Gibson, the spokesperson for NACHC, the nonprofit that runs the health clinic program, told BuzzFeed News that she couldn’t comment until June 30. “I can tell you, however, that we are no longer accepting applications,” Gibson said by email. A similar embargo has barred clinics and AmeriCorps members from discussing the program’s closing.
Community HealthCorps and other long-running programs have been in jeopardy for most of the last decade. A 2009 federal law required that AmeriCorps programs prove they are good financial investments for federal dollars, something hard to quantify for widely dispersed community service programs started under the earlier, looser rules.
“They really put older programs at a disadvantage against smaller programs that are more explicitly targeted at these new [payoff] requirements,” former AmeriCorps director Shirley Sagawa told BuzzFeed News.
Overall, AmeriCorps enrolls about 80,000 trainees every year, and the 2009 law called for increasing that number to 250,000. But the increase hasn’t happened. Sagawa noted that despite rare bipartisan support for AmeriCorps, its budget has been mostly flat during the Obama Administration, making the competition more fierce between schools, clinics, and other proposals to help strapped communities.
“The pendulum has really swung in favor of programs showing a national benefit, instead of ones tailored to local benefits,” said Sagawa, who was deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. “It might be time for it to swing back.”