House OKs state takeover of Fulton health board

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Fulton may lose control over its health department after fast tracked legislation passed the Georgia House on Tuesday, despite concerns about the impact on the county's HIV efforts.

Sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (photo), a Milton Republican, the legislation was introduced in early February, and took just over two weeks to make it to the House floor for a vote. Gay state Reps. Karla Drenner and Keisha Waites both voted in favor of the bill. It passed 151-17.

The legislation would repeal a state law that allows counties with populations over 800,000 people to create and run its own board of health. Fulton is the only one of the state's 159 counties that operates an independent health department.

LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocates are concerned about the impact on funding and governance of the Fulton health department during a transition to state control. They are advocating for more time to flesh out the details.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, particularly as it pertains to the HIV program,” said Devin Barrington-Ward, a lobbyist whose clients include SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW. SPARK focuses on social justice issues impacting youth at the intersection of race and gender identity.

The legislative push from Jones – and several Fulton Republican co-sponsors, including Reps. Wendell Willard, Brad Raffensperger, Betty Price, Joe Wilkinson and Beth Beskin – comes in the wake of the Fulton health department losing $9 million in funding for HIV testing and prevention. The scandal over the federal grants led to the ouster of health department chief Patrice Harris.

Since then, Fulton has installed a new health director, announced a new HIV strategy and repaired its relationship with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which issued the grants to the county. Earlier this month, the county opened a no-cost PrEP clinic to provide the once-a-day pill to combat HIV among high-risk groups, including gay men. The clinic is just one of a handful in the country and believed to be the first in the Southeast.

HIV advocates are concerned that some of Fulton's funding for community based organizations to provide HIV testing comes from CDC grants specifically targeting local health departments. They question if a state takeover of the health department could impact that.

“That funding model is solely for local health departments with local HIV programs. And so with that funding model, will Fulton County still qualify to receive those funds,” Barrington-Ward said.

Jones told WABE that the lost HIV prevention funds and a tuberculosis outbreak in Atlanta homeless shelters “prompted a serious discussion about change” in governance to the county health department. Her bill has the support of Fulton Commission Chair John Eaves. Via WABE:

“I think that this is a great way for state leaders, and local leaders, to be as a committee of one, to address this issue and so I don’t share the concerns that others have. I see this as a great opportunity,” said Fulton County Commission Board Chair John Eaves, also on WABE’s “Closer Look.”      

LGBT and HIV activists say they don't oppose the bill from Jones, but have questions about the transition and other details about the implementation of how House Bill 885. Georgia Equality wants the timeline of the state takeover to be extended by one year, to December 2017, to provide for a clear transition plan for existing programs, funding and employees.

“We agree that there are certainly some benefits to [the State managing the Fulton health department.] That’s why we’re not saying to kill the bill, we’re saying to amend the bill, just amend the timeline, so that we actually have a full year to make sure that it’s not going to negatively impact the great strides that happened in Fulton County,” said Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director.

The Georgia Department of Public Health declined to comment on the pending legislation. 

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