Judge: HHS illegally ended teen pregnancy prevention funding

A federal judge in Washington state ruled Tuesday that the Department of Health and Human Services had illegally ended a federal grant program aimed at curbing teen pregnancy — the fourth federal judge to rule against the department’s decision.

Washington state’s King County, a recipient of one of 84 Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants, sued the department and Secretary Alex Azar in February. King County said the early termination of the grant — June 2018 instead of June 2020 — would cut $2 million in funding and “makes it impossible to complete a vital evaluation of” its sex education curriculum.

The lawsuit sought to block Azar’s department from stopping the funds and “to restrain federal officials from applying an ideological bias to deny science-based projects that have been rigorously vetted and already funded by Congress,” according to a news release from the time.

In his decision, US District Judge John Coughenour ruled that “HHS failed to articulate a satisfactory explanation for its decision to shorten King County’s project period,” saying it “exemplifies arbitrary and capricious agency action meriting reversal.”

The ruling vacates HHS’ decision to terminate King County’s grant and orders the agency to review and process the annual continuation application in a timely manner “as if HHS had not terminated King County’s grant award.”

“This ruling is such a relief, as we are so close to the finish line for completing this study and building an evidence base for sex education nationwide,” King County Public Health Director Patty Hayes said in a statement.

HHS did not immediately reply to CNN’s request for comment on the decision.

Last summer, the Trump administration decided to end grant funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. In an August statement, the department said it was reviewing best approaches after evaluating the first round of programs.

“The poor evaluation results were the reason that the Trump Administration, in its FY 2018 budget proposal, did not recommend continued funding for the TPP program and HHS hit the pause button on it,” the statement said.

Coughenour is the fourth federal judge to rule against HHS over its decision to end the program. Judges in Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Spokane, Washington, have made similar rulings.

Many researchers, program directors and city health officials have argued against ending the grants prematurely. Members of the Big Cities Health Coalition, a coalition of health officials from the 28 largest cities in the US, wrote a joint letter to then-HHS Secretary Tom Price in August urging him to reconsider the decision to cut the project period and funds.