While metro Atlanta struggles with one of the highest HIV rates in the nation – and one that hits gay men hard – Fulton County's health department is squandering millions of dollars it receives to combat the disease.
WABE uncovered the shameful findings, reporting on Monday that the county's health department returned $8.7 million in HIV prevention funds granted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. That's nearly 45 percent of the $20 million the county received in HIV funds from the CDC. The reason? Bureaucracy.
Dr. Patrice Harris, director of health services for Fulton County, said the spending problems “absolutely concern” her. As the grant’s principle investigator, Harris is responsible for executing Fulton County’s HIV prevention strategy.
So why hasn’t the money been spent?
Harris said there many reasons, including the grant’s funding cycle, the amount of time needed to hire and train personnel, turnover and county bureaucracy. Plus, because the CDC requires Fulton County to contract with various community-based non-profits, ensuring their compliance can slow things down, she said.
Worse still, the county health department fails to meet key benchmarks tied to the grant money the CDC awards it.
But unspent HIV prevention funds are just one problem the Fulton County Health Department has faced. Compliance documents obtained by WABE show the health department also failed to meet several key benchmarks tied to the grant money.
For example, it didn’t link enough newly-diagnosed HIV patients to medical care. It also failed to identify enough new HIV-positive people in non-health care settings. Recording and reporting data also posed a challenge, according to CDC records.
Fulton Commission Chair John Eaves (photo), a staunch LGBT ally who just last week bragged about the county being ready for gay marriage, called the findings of the WABE report "disappointing" and "inexcusable."
Like all county agencies, the health department falls under the oversight of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. The Board’s chair, John Eaves, said he only learned of the spending problems a few days ago.
“This is one area that we were not aware of, in terms of the challenges,” Eaves said. “It really is disappointing and to a certain degree inexcusable.”
Eaves said he was also unaware of the compliance issues in the heath department and would order the county manager to investigate. In the past, Eaves has touted his management of the county's HIV programs and called the disease a threat to "the vibrancy of our community."
Commissioner Joan Garner, the commission's only openly LGBT member, could not be reached for comment Monday morning.
Move over, Gov. Nathan Deal. You're not the only one mishandling HIV prevention.