Fulton health director resigns

Enduring intense criticism after her agency squandered millions in HIV funding, Fulton County’s health director has announced her intent to leave the position, county officials said Thursday.

Dr. Patrice Harris said she needed to devote time to her new role as chair-elect of the American Medical Association, but her departure spurred widespread speculation linking it to the troubled HIV grant.

The announcement that Harris will leave at the end of 2015 comes days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Fulton’s inept handling of a $28 million federal grant hobbled efforts to expand HIV testing and prevention to thousands of people. The program was so poorly managed that the county was forced to return nearly $9 million because local officials failed to meet spending deadlines.

The county successfully requested some $3.4 million back, county officials said.

Fulton County commissioners were so upset with the bureaucratic foul-ups that they ordered audits of the HIV program and the entire Health Department. The audit on the HIV program is expected to be completed shortly.

Gay rights advocate Jeff Graham, who served on an advisory panel over the HIV program, said it suffered from more problems than can be attributed to one person. But Harris was the “principal authority” who created “the culture that allowed this problem to occur.”

Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said that from the start of the program in 2012, it had been plagued by poor leadership, staffing shortages and delays in engaging the community it was supposed to serve.

County officials were clearly irritated with Harris when they grilled her about the grant problems in June. County Commission Chairman John Eaves said the missteps were “inexcusable,” and that they made the county look so bad they might endanger future federal funding.

Eaves did not directly respond when the AJC asked him days ago whether the blunders could cost Harris her job. He stressed that his focus was “correcting issues with the processes at the county department of health.”

On Thursday, Eaves said, “She made her own decision about retiring. There was no pressure on my part or anybody else’s part. She made the decision.”

Harris, who served the county for about a decade, submitted her written intent to resign last week, saying in her letter that she has worked years to develop a senior leadership team “that I am certain will serve this county well.”

Harris did not respond to a request for an interview made through a county spokeswoman.

Harris had told the AJC days ago that steps are underway to correct problems with the grant process. Staffing is almost up to speed and efforts are underway to revamp a slow and cumbersome process for soliciting project proposals from community groups.

The grant money came from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday the CDC responded to several questions submitted by the AJC last week. The CDC indicated that it conducted a “comprehensive site visit” with the Fulton health department in late July and will assist the county with the HIV grant.

In announcing Harris’ departure, County Manager Dick Anderson thanked her for staying on during the search for a new health director. He added, “Such concern for the well-being of Fulton County’s citizens has been a hallmark of Dr. Harris’ leadership and a guiding passion throughout her career.”

The following is a statement released Friday by Dr. Patrice Harris.

The Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness is committed to effectively implementing and complying with grant requirements and to using all of the federal grant money we are awarded to serve the citizens of Fulton County. Throughout my nine-and a half-year tenure, I have also worked hard to create a culture of accountability and service excellence. While there have been challenges in the drawdown of dollars for the HIV Prevention grant, largely related to processes that were in place, the good news is that we are working closely with the new County Manager and the Board of Commissioners to address those challenges by improving our processes and we are making good progress on that front. We are on track to spend all of this year’s CDC money awarded for expanding HIV testing and prevention with the possible exception of personnel dollars due to staff attrition, and we expect that progress to continue in the years ahead.

I informed Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson of my decision to retire last week. I have been contemplating this decision since June, when I became the Chair-Elect of the American Medical Association (AMA), because the role carries a number of responsibilities that will consume an enormous amount of my time and attention going forward.

It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of Fulton County. I look forward to ongoing work on national health policy issues that I believe will have a positive impact on the health of our community. After retiring I plan to expand my private practice as well as work with other private practices to implement new models for the integration of primary care, obstetrics/gynecology and behavioral health, similar to the Integrated Service Delivery System I have led in Fulton County.

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