Earlier this year the California-based network of Obria clinics wrestled a potential $5 million grant from the federal government. The group had positioned itself as the “pro-life” Planned Parenthood, an organization that could divert health grants into something that offered virginity instead of The Pill; the kind of place destined to draw attention from federal agencies sympathetic to a rigid anti-abortion agenda.
Eight months later, it’s unclear exactly how those funds are being used, and reports portray the Obria health centers as deeply unprepared to provide the services initially promised. A Mother Jones investigation suggests Obria’s offices (and mobile vans) are barely seeing patients and inflating clinical partnerships; the story also raises questions about how taxpayer money is actually being spent. Obria’s “telehealth” app, once shopped out to investors and donors, has yet to be fully developed. Abby Johnson, among the most sought-after motivational speakers in the anti-contraceptive movement after walking out of Planned Parenthood a decade ago, was at one point a high-profile Obria employee. Recently, she accused the organization of lying to the people who gave it money and orchestrating federal grants as a “cash grab” to pay executive salaries. (That Johnson herself orchestrated something of a long-term cash grab when she fudged the circumstances of her exit from Planned Parenthood and built a small media empire on her story should not, however, go unrecognized.)
Together, these stories portray an organization almost comically unprepared to navigate the scrutiny of a federal grant program, a joke that would certainly be funnier if it hadn’t coincided with the draining of funding from clinics with decades of experience in both filing paperwork and providing care. The dissonance between Obria’s early marketing materials and the reality of its “expansion” probably have something to do with the anti-abortion network’s lack of experience in both of those matters, despite large infusions of taxpayer money to help them figure it out.
And this is a funding stream, by the way, they seemed to have stumbled upon almost completely by accident: As emails obtained by the Campaign for Accountability suggest, the group only first learned of the Title X grant program from an article in Breitbart News, about a year before they were granted almost $2 million.
Obria, you may recall, is a “holistic” family planning network that purports to offer reproductive health care “choice” to anti-abortion patients. Founded by abstinence-only advocate Kathleen Eaton Bravo, it rebranded from a crisis pregnancy center to a more nuanced clinical setting in 2014. Since the pivot, Bravo has courted donors and grant programs, explicitly softening the organization’s religious messaging and telling reporters she planned to recreate Planned Parenthood’s model of comprehensive care—bolstered by state funding, just without the abortions or contraceptive options.
Beginning in 2018, ostensibly after coming across the 40-year-old program in a far-right website, Obria applied for Title X grants, hoping to harness funds from the only federal program specifically addressing the reproductive needs of low-income people. In March of 2019, the organization was granted $1.7 million by an administration courting “faith-based” reproductive healthcare options, with the potential for over $5 million over the next three years—inciting a debate over whether a clinic that does not offer condoms, birth control pills, or “barrier” methods of contraception qualifies for Title X funds, a question that remains murky today.
As Bravo expanded Obria, she promised rapid growth, telling donors she hoped to run 200 brick-and-mortar clinics by 2020. An app that providing live text and video chat, as well as on-demand “abortion pill reversal”—a spurious and imaginary treatment—was reportedly in the works. (“Our national patient marketing program directly targets abortion-minded women and offers multiple channels of communication for live chat and telemedicine,” a now-deleted slide deck explaining the mission to investors once read.)
But today, the app intended to compete with Planned Parenthood’s telehealth offering is still just a list of Obria’s California clinics, and a Mother Jones reporter’s investigation of the organization this month turned up some less than promising results. The publication could identify only 18 out of the 200 clinics Obria had promised to build by 2020, and when Stephanie Mencimer visited an address listed for an Obria clinic, she initially found a van parked next to a church. At other clinics, only a handful of patients appeared throughout the course of the day to receive care. This might not be surprising, had the group not recently been delivered a massive grant: As Mencimer reports, in 2018 one Obria clinic saw fewer than two patients a day, and the organization has set its sights remarkably low given how much money it’s receiving: According to its grant application, an extra $6 million over several years would only guarantee the clinic would serve an additional 1,000 women in the state. Meanwhile, Eaton Bravo’s salary from the Obria Group—the national umbrella group for the clinics—is $192,000 a year.
All of which might lead one to wonder how, exactly, an organization with such a poor track record of translating funding into services captured such a hefty share of a crucial grant program, especially in a moment when many reproductive health clinics are being entirely defunded. The Campaign for Accountability has been aggressively pursuing information about how, exactly, Obria got its hands on millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, which as Mencimer notes are a significant portion of the annual $286 million Title X grant.
Last week, the organization published emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request in which Clare Venegas, Obria Medical Clinics’ president, forwarded a Breitbart article to a policy liaison at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health. It was 2018, and she appeared to have never heard of Title X. “This grant opportunity seems right up our alley,” she wrote, but noted the application would “take quite a bit of time/investment to complete.” Officials subsequently got on the phone and talked her through the process.
In August, Planned Parenthood announced it would withdraw from Title X following a rule that prevented clinics from referring people out to abortions, a loss of about $60 million a year. Anti-abortion advocates applauded the move, predicting it would free up more funding for faith-based clinics. Not that it matters, apparently, how well these clinics perform, or how well they can keep their promises to donors, as long as there’s someone around to grab at all that money and promise no more babies will be killed.