Vita Nuova doesn’t appear to exist beyond its paper filing, but it is suing to get Title X funding in a hypothetical future in which it is ineligible for said funding.
Anti-abortion activist Carol Everett—whose organization the Heidi Group served a fraction of the women’s health patients it pledged to treat and is under state investigation for questionable spending of more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars—has a new venture. She’s quietly starting a new anti-abortion group and suing the federal government to try to get more funding.
In a move first reported by Politico, Everett and two others affiliated with the Heidi Group formed a new organization, Vita Nuova, or “new life,” on July 2. The very next day, the group filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, challenging rules that it says bars Vita Nuova, a “Christian, pro-life organization,” and others like it from participating in the Title X federal family planning program. The lawsuit claims that Vita Nuova—which does not appear to have a website or medical providers at this point—is stymied by its anti-abortion position, and by a Title X requirement that providers recognize same-sex marriage, which the group does not, opposing “homosexual behavior for religious reasons.” Rules that prevent the organization from qualifying for Title X funding “hinder Vita Nuova’s efforts to raise funds and build a network of providers,” according to the complaint. The group is “preparing to apply for Title X grants at the next available opportunity.”
The lawsuit comes as providers across the country are grappling with how or whether to comply with new Trump rules that ban Title X recipients from referring patients for abortions, lifting up religious, anti-abortion providers over established family planning providers like Planned Parenthood. Texas, which slashed family planning funding in 2011 and kicked abortion providers out of its state women’s health program in 2013, was a test case for this national effort. Despite its lack of experience with family planning programs, the Heidi Group was given multimillion-dollar state contracts in 2016 to fill in the gap left by shuttered or excluded women’s health providers, subcontracting with crisis pregnancy centers, doctors, and clinics across the state, and promising to serve more patients in its first year than Planned Parenthood had.
New data obtained by the Observer from the state health agency shows that for a second year the Heidi Group served a fraction of the patients it promised it would in both state women’s health programs, while still spending most of the funds it received. In the Healthy Texas Women program in fiscal year 2018, the Heidi Group spent 95 percent of its nearly $1.2 million contract, plus about $878,000 in fee-for-service expenditures, and served just 13 percent of the more than 35,400 patients promised, according to state data. In the Family Planning Program, the group spent 67 percent of its more than $2 million award, and served 36 percent of the approximately 7,100 patients anticipated, the state health commission reported. The year before, the group had served less than 5 percent of the 69,000 patients it pledged to cover in both programs, according to the state. In a June Observer investigation, interviews and documents indicate a pattern of mismanagement, contract violations, and misuse of state funds at the Heidi Group.
Everett, who’s called Jesus Christ “the ultimate unplanned pregnancy,” has insisted that state totals undercount the number of patients served by her subcontractors. But even her own numbers are far below target. She attributes this in large part to lack of support from the state, and argues that she was still establishing a “start-up” which needed more time to meet its goals.
It’s unclear whether the Heidi Clinic, which seemed on the verge of closing this spring, will continue, or how Vita Nuova will be different, aside from having another name at the top of the organization’s Texas Secretary of State filing. (Everett is listed third. Rebecca Hobdy, listed first, is Everett’s granddaughter, according to several former employees; Andrew Herrera, second, is one of the few remaining Heidi Group employees.) Everett did not answer questions from the Observer about the lawsuit or her new organization.
“Talk about chutzpah,” said Dan Quinn, communications director at Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that has called for investigations into the Heidi Group’s state contracts. “They can change their name and create as many different organizations as they want, but neither the government nor the courts should force taxpayers to fund this toxic brew of incompetence and discrimination.”
In January, the Heidi Group applied for Title X funding in Texas under the umbrella of the Obria Group, a Catholic, California-based organization that has refused to provide contraception. Obria got the funding, in California; the Heidi Group, which was accused by former employees and a national watchdog group of lying and inflating its patient counts on the federal grant application, did not.
The Vita Nuova lawsuit comes at a time of tremendous uncertainty for the Title X program and its grantees. Indeed, in the weeks since the suit was filed, a court ruled that Trump’s new Title X restrictions could go into effect while legal challenges continue—making Vita Nuova’s claim that its anti-abortion position would preclude it from funding seemingly irrelevant, at least for now. “The rule is welcome news for people who don’t believe patients should have the full range of care and education they need,” said Audrey Sandusky, director of advocacy and communications at the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which is involved in several legal challenges against the new guidance.
Grantees have until August 19 to tell the federal government whether they intend to stay in the program and abide by the new guidelines. Taxpayer funds already cannot be used for abortions, but now some clinics would need to establish new physical barriers, and doctors would be prohibited from talking with patients about all of their options. Because of these new restrictions, Planned Parenthood, which serves about 40 percent of patients in the federal program, has stopped using Title X funds.
Meanwhile, Everett has tapped two former Texas officials for legal services, both of whom fought to defund Planned Parenthood during their time in government. Stuart Bowen, formerly inspector general at the Health and Human Services Commission, appointed by Governor Greg Abbott, led the effort to kick Planned Parenthood out of Texas’ full Medicaid program, which has been blocked in court. After he was forced to resign last year, he’s been helping Everett with the investigation into the Heidi Group that’s being conducted by his former agency. The lead attorney for Vita Nuova in its July filing is Jonathan Mitchell, who was solicitor general of Texas from 2010 to 2015 under Abbott when he was Texas Attorney General, and defended in court Texas’ decision to kick Planned Parenthood out of its low income women’s health program.
Less than two months before she started her new organization and sued the federal government, Everett said that despite the state contracts ending, the Heidi Clinic was her focus moving forward. She planned to rely on private funders to continue her work. Standing in the clinic hallway in May, as I asked about the investigation into her work with the state, Everett said, “I can’t help but ask why we’re still the story. We’re gone.”
Inside Texas’ Failed Experiment to Replace Planned Parenthood With an Anti-Abortion Group: The Heidi Group’s quick rise and fall is a cautionary tale of what happens when government prioritizes politics over health care.
Texas Anti-Abortion Family Planning Group Promised to Serve 70,000 Women. It Served 3,300: But the state keeps renewing its multimillion-dollar contract.
Meet the ‘Abortion Abolitionists’ Shaping Policy in the Texas GOP: The most extreme anti-abortion group in the state has gained momentum this year and now claims to have 90,000 members.