The Oklahoma legislature is poised to deal a major blow to non-profits and faith-based organizations who help administer the WIC program.  The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program is a federally-funded, state-administered nutrition service for low-income women, infants and children under five.  WIC subsidizes nutritious foods, infant formula, education on healthy eating and breastfeeding, and screening and referrals for other health and welfare services.

On average in 2010, Oklahoma WIC clinics provided 133,002 low-income mothers $37.18 dollars in food and formula each month.  WIC clinics are operated by health departments, tribal governments, faith-based organizations, community health centers and non-profits.  For instance, the clinic in Variety Health Center in south Oklahoma City serves an average of 8,066 low-income women and children each month.  The Edmond Ministerial Alliance’s Hope Center Health Clinic serves 1,611 average monthly participants.

Rep. Jason Murphey amended SB 709, a senior nutrition bill, to prohibit non-profits and faith-based organizations in Tulsa and Oklahoma county from administering WIC benefits to thousands of women and children across the state.  Section 2 of SB 709 creates new law that stipulates:

For purposes of purchasing and contracting in counties with a population greater than four hundred thousand (400,000), funds received for the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program shall only be distributed by the Oklahoma Department of Health to state, county, tribal, public schools or city/county health agencies.  These funds shall only be spent by these agencies and not contracted out to other agencies.

Why transform a successful private-public partnership into a government monopoly?  Rep. Murphey is concerned about government funds going to organizations that provide abortion referrals.  Murphey’s amendment, which eliminates eight clinics distributing food and formula benefits to thousands of poor families in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, was intended to target only one location – Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma (PPAEO).  The Tulsa Planned Parenthood location distributes WIC benefits, along with a variety of other family health services, but does not perform abortions.  Terry Bryce, WIC Service Chief at the Oklahoma State Health Department explained to OK Policy that contractors operating WIC clinics submit a line-item budget and none of the money allocated to Planned Parenthood in Tulsa goes to fund abortion referrals.

If SB 709 becomes law, the Health Departments in Tulsa and Oklahoma City would be responsible for distributing WIC benefits to an additional 24,000 women and children.  Oklahoma WIC program head Terry Bryce told OK Policy that the Health Department lacks the capacity to absorb those cases.  Health Department locations in Tulsa and Oklahoma City do not have the space, staff or materials for thousands of additional families.  Over the past two years, the Health Department has absorbed cuts of 15 percent, which seriously compromise its ability to perform its core function of preserving public health.  More cuts are on the way.

Not only does local government lack the infrastructure for such a fundamental change, but the families receiving WIC benefits are often not in a position to travel to another site.  As a Tulsa World editorial explained:

Remember, these are not women of means. Many, if not most, would have to rely on public transportation – with one or more small children in tow. Some of the new mothers are younger than 16 years old and obviously would have no choice but to rely on someone else to drive them.

SB 709 has passed the House and Senate and awaits action by a conference committee.  Rep. Murphey told OK Policy that he didn’t realize the number of providers that would be affected by his amendment and would work in conference committee to narrow the bill’s language so it would not affect so many vendors.  Let’s hope he and his conference committee colleagues are true to their word about correcting their mistake.   Otherwise, the impact will be to strain an already stressed Health Department budget, deprive vulnerable low-income families with young children of healthy groceries, and transform a program efficiently operated with the active involvement of the private sector into a government monopoly.