Fulton County has launched an internal audit to figure out why its health department squandered millions of dollars in federal funds to combat HIV with the hopes that it can recoup some of the money.
On Wednesday, commissioners unanimously voted to order County Auditor Nicks to investigate the health department, which has come under scrutiny since WABE reported that it returned $8.7 million in HIV prevention funds granted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention – nearly half of the $20 million it received since 2012.
The discovery shocked County Commission Chair John Eaves (photo), a gay-friendly elected official who has touted the county's HIV programs and called the disease a threat to "the vibrancy of our community."
When commissioners discussed the health department and audit last week, Eaves criticized county health department director Dr. Patrice Harris.
“It’s beyond me why this board was never informed about this large amount of money not being utilized,” Eaves said.
Harris took partial responsibility for the problem, but also cited issues with hiring and county bureaucracy.
“It’s unacceptable to send any dollars back. As you know, we have the HIV/AIDS problem here in Fulton and DeKalb counties,” she said.
But Eaves interrupted.
He, and other county commissioners, seemed unsatisfied with Harris' answers. So much so, they voted unanimously for County Auditor Anthony Nicks to do a top-to-bottom investigation of the entire health department.
On Tuesday, County Manager Dick Anderson told WABE that once the audit is completed in the coming weeks, he'll make a decision about whether the HIV funding flap would cost Harris her job.
Joan Garner, Fulton's only openly LGBT commissioner, said in a statement provided to Project Q Atlanta that she's concerned about the "challenges" with the federal grants for HIV prevention efforts.
"These are dollars that are desperately needed in connecting residents to prevention and intervention resources," Garner said. "Clearly we need to review our internal policies and procedures to ensure that they support the work we are doing in serving our vulnerable populations. I will be working with our team internally to make sure we are taking steps to correct these issues moving forward.”
Eaves told 11Alive that he hopes the audit helps show the CDC that it should continue contributing to the county's HIV efforts.
"We also want to send a positive message to the CDC in the event that there are other dollars that are sent Fulton County's way," Eaves said.
An emergency request could potentially recover $2 million of the lost funding.
In a statement after ordering the audit, the county said recent meetings with CDC officials resulted in funding for additional healthcare testing sites.
The statement, via WABE:
The health of Fulton County citizens is one of the top priorities of Fulton County Government. The need for HIV prevention resources is greatly needed, and we are grateful for the CDC’s support and are on track to spend all grant funds this year.
Major grants take a great deal of initial investment of start-up time, including time to recruit and hire personnel and establish procurement documents, timelines, and more. We have also identified a top-to-bottom policy review as a priority for Fulton County to ensure that our policies support, rather than restrict, our ability to achieve our core mission. In addition, we are working to achieve best practices in grant management through a shared services model.
In terms of managing this specific grant, we have already implemented a number of changes, including updating our staffing structure. Some of this effort, as well as restrictive internal policies, led to some lags. We have met with the CDC to identify a number of opportunities. As a result, we will be funding more health care testing sites. We are also looking at other funding models by other major federal grants, including the State of New York and our local Ryan White program.
We have also requested a continuation of funds from the CDC which may result in some restored funding.