The sudden departure of AID Atlanta's CEO – at a time when the Southeast's largest AIDS service organization is undergoing a massive shift in its focus and work – came as its leader faced a more personal battle. Jose Diaz has cancer.
The discovery came during the holiday season last year and set in a motion a chain of events that led to the surprise announcement on Friday that Diaz was resigning after little more than a year as AID Atlanta's CEO. The four-sentence announcement said Diaz resigned over health reasons; Board Chair Chip Newton hinted at an unfavorable prognosis in an interview with the GA Voice.
On Monday, Diaz said in an interview with Project Q Atlanta that a health scare last fall led to medical tests that first uncovered a chronic hepatitis B infection. That led to additional tests that showed he has liver cancer and needs a liver transplant. The diagnosis helped shift ongoing internal discussions at AID Atlanta about hiring a new CFO to Diaz and Newton considering a transition for Diaz. It ended with Friday's announcement and the appointment of healthcare executive James Hughey as an interim CEO.
It was a whirlwind of activity that comes as AID Atlanta is shifting its mission with the opening of a new healthcare center, raising funds to close a budget shortfall and undergoing significant staffing changes.
"My health is doing well, much better than November and December," Diaz said Monday. "I wish things would have been done a little slower but I understand the board's position and I support it. Chip had to make a decision on what's best for the agency."
Diaz, hired in January 2014 with a $155,000 annual salary, will become a consultant to AID Atlanta and help Hughey in a transition that could lead to his appointment as the agency's permanent CEO. The details of Diaz's severance and new role are still being ironed out, he said.
"Right now, we are working through the details of my consulting role and all of the separation details. I've dedicated myself to having a contractual relationship so I can help James transition," he said. "I'll remain involved in a transition and still be able to deal with the health issues. I think the board felt they wanted a more active individual and that the CEO would not be absent in a lot of the activities and positive things that we're moving along on with partners in the community."
Diaz said that a budget shortfall and the strain of funding the construction of the Mark B. Rinder Center for Wellness (second photo) and a new pharmacy – a more than $700,000 project – did not contribute to his departure. Budget challenges also included investing in an electronic medical records system and providing the first salary increases for employees in three years, he said.
"We are going to show a very clear shortfall in our budget this year but we knew that going into the year," Diaz said. "We knew we would show a pretty big loss in our budget."
But Diaz said the agency also showed a large increase in grants and federal money for HIV programs that helped boost AID Atlanta's budget from $7.2 million to $16 million.
"I was able to fundraise more money in grants and relationships with Kaiser and other organizations that gave us more money this year because of our new vision than at any other time in the last five years," Diaz said. "We are going to show a negative but this has been one of the most successful years that AID Atlanta has had in over 10 years. I can say that fairly positively."
During Diaz's tenure, AID Atlanta also saw staffing changes including the departure last fall of Joey Helton, a successful fundraiser hired in January 2013 as its new development director. Branden Lane, a giving officer, left in December. The agency is also operating with an interim CFO and without a clinical operations manager. Diaz said those departures and other staffing changes have come as AID Atlanta changes its mission to expand services beyond HIV care.
"I think it was a mission change that did not align with the reason why they came to AID Atlanta. We are expanding our mission to really be able to move from this very targeted HIV mission to expanding LGBT health across the board. Overall, HIV is no longer the sexy urgent disease that people give to and run to anymore. People are really targeting their dollars to other things and we have to be creative in how we raise money. It's a bit of a culture shock for our employees," Diaz said.
He added that an ongoing rebranding of the agency will bring more staff changes and continued hiring that has grown the number of employees from 84 to 118 during his year on the job.
"You are going to see some really drastic changes that are going to reflect a lot more drama than what was reflected with me. You are going to see a lot of turnover and staff changes and things that are going to align differently because of the aggressiveness of trying to keep AID Atlanta sustained," Diaz said.
Making health 'my priority'
Though Diaz's departure was surprising – he sat for a lengthy interview with WABE to discuss the challenges facing AID Atlanta less than three weeks before he resigned – he also pushed back against speculation that it was related to his forced resignation from the Charlotte-area Metrolina AIDS Project in 2009. The agency collapsed under financial troubles a few months after Diaz arrived to lead it as part of his consulting work with the Health Resources & Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
A detailed takedown of Metrolina AIDS Project's collapse by Q Notes uncovered internal problems, staff resignations, dwindling resources and claims of financial mismanagement. It also detailed concerns over Diaz's professional credentials.
On Monday, Diaz said he had no control of the agency's budget when he arrived and was put in place to investigate a lengthy list of problems that ultimately prompted its board to close it. Diaz said he explained his role at Metrolina AIDS Project to AID Atlanta's board before his hiring in 2014, proving he had no role in why the Charlotte agency collapsed.
"[My resignation at AID Atlanta] had nothing more to do with than they wanting me to take care of my health and they wanting me to make it my priority," Diaz said.
As Diaz steps back from his role as CEO, he said he's proud of his track record at AID Atlanta.
"In 12 months, we really accomplished our goals and sold ourselves as something more than a Ryan White program. That's what I leave this agency with and it's exciting and that's what James will pick up with and really run with," Diaz said. "I came with 22 years of HIV community experience and helped AID Atlanta get back on the scale where it was many years ago. That's really what my vision was and where I was going."
[Second photo via AID Atlanta]