HOUSTON -- An anti-abortion group that has come under fire for failing to fulfill its promise to provide health services to thousands of low-income Texas women owes the state more than $1.5 million for reimbursement payments that were either inflated or that the state shouldn't have paid at all, according to state investigators.
The office of the health inspector general announced Thursday that it had uncovered "serious contractual violations" and was expanding its probe of the Heidi Group, an evangelical nonprofit that started promoting alternatives to abortion in the 1990s, the Houston Chronicle reported. It was founded by Carol Everett, an influential conservative activist in the Texas Legislature, which has passed some of the country's toughest anti-abortion laws in recent years.
A copy of the investigation report obtained by the newspaper shows that forensic accountants found the group had paid medical providers hundreds of thousands in extra fees, had overspent on payroll and fringe benefits, and had expensed thousands of dollars in prohibited costs on things such as food, gift cards, clothing and retail membership fees.
The inquiry covered a seven-month period, from September 2017 to March 2018.
"It's a travesty when you look at all the women who should have been receiving services and were not because of this," said state Rep. Donna Howard. "We're talking about women who don't have means to afford health care like many of us do."
Texas hired the group in 2016 to help strengthen small clinics that specialize in women's health but do not offer abortions after Republican lawmakers cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Initially, the Health and Human Services Commission gave the Heidi Group $6.7 million, despite apprehensions because the group hadn't previously contracted with the state and had no experience serving women in clinical settings.
An Associated Press investigation found that the group came nowhere close to meeting its promise to serve 50,000 women.
When the group's clinics started falling short of their goals, officials were slow to move money to higher performing providers.
Representatives for the Heidi Group swiftly disputed the findings, contending that the payments had been permitted and budgeted from the start by the Health and Human Services Commission.
"Everything we did was according to the contract," CEO Carol Everett said.
Last year, Texas canceled millions of dollars in troubled contracts with the organization.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com