LINCOLN — Nebraska’s state auditor says Planned Parenthood of the Heartland improperly spent federal funds on abortion services in 2015, an allegation the organization denied and characterized as a political attack.
A recent report by Nebraska State Auditor Charlie Janssen determined that Planned Parenthood misused at least $3,500 in public money for physician fees, staff salaries and pathology work related to placental and fetal tissue.
The money in question originated from a federal family planning program administered by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Federal law specifically prohibits the program’s funds from being used for abortions.
The Nebraska audit findings will be turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Kansas City. It will be up to federal officials to decide whether they want repayment or whether Planned Parenthood can submit qualifying expenses for the funds. The department also could decide to conduct its own audit.
Officials with the Des Moines-based affiliate of Planned Parenthood said the disputed funds were in fact privately raised by the organization but said the expenses were “miscoded” as family planning by staff members when filling out reports.
“It is very clearly politically motivated to call Planned Parenthood out by name in the report,” said Angie Remington, the group’s spokeswoman. “It’s very clear this is targeting Planned Parenthood.”
She mentioned that Gov. Pete Ricketts had asked state health officials to investigate the organization’s abortion clinics in Omaha and Lincoln last year following controversy that arose over disputed videos related to fetal tissue. The investigations turned up one violation at each clinic for the late filing of monthly statistical reports.
In response to the auditor’s report, the governor has ordered “an immediate review of the findings,” said Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman.
“It appears Planned Parenthood of the Heartland provided abortion services but billed those services to the state as family planning,” Gage said. “This dovetails exactly with the governor’s concerns from almost a year ago about Planned Parenthood’s abortion activities.”
Janssen, a Republican officeholder who personally opposes abortion, stood behind the audit’s findings. He said the audit did not target the organization but was part of a comprehensive annual review of all state agencies that receive $500,000 or more in federal funds.
The findings related to Planned Parenthood filled fewer than four pages in the 350-page report.
“I would say my partisan hat goes off when I step into this office every morning,” Janssen said. “We just want to make sure the money is spent in the manner it is intended to be spent, whether we agreed with it or not.”
All state agency audits are provided to the Attorney General’s Office, Janssen said. Auditors call special attention to any potential illegal activity or fraud they uncover when they turn over their reports.
That was not done in this case, Janssen said.
The report stated that Planned Parenthood’s actions represented “an increased risk of misuse of federal funds and non-compliance with federal regulations, which could result in federal sanctions.” But Janssen said Friday he believes that’s unlikely.
“I certainly understand it’s a very passionate topic for people, but I don’t think this should rise to the level of the federal government withholding funds,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington was reached late Friday afternoon but was unable to say immediately what action, if any, the department might take in response to the Nebraska audit.
The federal family planning program pays for testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and other health services related to reproductive health. An open records request last year showed that Planned Parenthood’s clinics in Nebraska receive about $500,000 in public money per year, as a combination of federal and state funds.
No state or federal money goes to abortion, except in rare cases as determined by federal law, Planned Parenthood officials have said.
The state auditor reviewed a two-month period of operations by Planned Parenthood as they related to family planning funding during the 2015 fiscal year. HHS officials reviewed the audit results and said they agreed with them.
In the report, auditors noted:
» One payment of $1,970 for physician fees. The report did not identify the physician, but indicated no other family planning fees were paid to the doctor based upon Planned Parenthood’s annual ledger.
» $1,260 in pathology expenditures related to what Planned Parenthood called “products of conception.” The phrase refers to placental or fetal tissue collected during an abortion. A staff member told auditors that the expenditures should have been coded to abortion services.
» $255 in travel reimbursements that were not consistent with time sheets and “appeared related to abortion services.”
» $52 for two hours of on-call time paid to a clinic manager related to abortion services.
All of the expenses were identified by Planned Parenthood as having been paid for with the federal family planning funds, the auditor said.
Staff members made errors when coding the disputed expenditures, Remington said.
“Obviously staff miscoding time is not something specific to Planned Parenthood of the Heartland,” she said. “Coding errors are not uncommon in the health care profession.”
The organization has acknowledged the mistakes and has taken steps to prevent them from happening again, Remington said.
When asked about the expenditures related to fetal tissue, she said pathology testing of tissue collected in the course an abortion is required by Nebraska regulations. But she said that Planned Parenthood of the Heartland does not provide fetal tissue for scientific research.
Planned Parenthood officials said they rely on more than federal funds to pay for family planning services. The state auditors examined about $317,000 in expenditures over the two months of their review. Federal funds covered less than half of that total, with private money making up the rest.