Fulton HIV funding miscommunication led to fears of canceled programs

By mid-March, Zina Age still hadn't heard back from Fulton County about her request for $200,000 in grant money to test 1,200 people for HIV. She continued the work of Aniz, Inc., the organization she runs, on the assumption that the money she had received for years would come through.

Then a list of groups to be funded was circulated. It was missing Aniz and several other local organizations that test high-risk residents and help them get care. Leaders of local HIV and AIDS-preventionorganizations were up in arms.

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In the end, they didn't need to be about the funding— it was going to come. But the fact that no one told them that still rankles the leaders.

“Of course I was panicking,” Age said. “We had been doing the work since January.”

Wednesday, Fulton Health Director Kathleen Toomeywill recommend all the organizations that were left off the initial list get some funding, including $150,000 to Aniz — enough to fund 900 tests. Though the reduction in funds means Age will have to cut a position, it's not nearly as devastating as it would have been if the organization had been awarded nothing, Age said.

So what happened? Toomey blames the uproar on miscommunication.

The county will get $8 million this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with about $2 million of it available for outside grants. Toomey said she always intended two rounds of funding — the first for large organizations, and a second for smaller ones. But she neglected to tell the organizations that.

When the full funding recommendations are made, Toomey said, the frustrations of the organizations’ leaders will “be turned around and we’re going to have happy campers,” she said.

“I take responsibility for the breakdown in communication,” she said. “The intentions were always good.”

For months, the leaders of HIV and AIDS-prevention organizations had been asking about the status of their applications, to no avail. The way Toomey explains it, the issue is twofold: she and others at the county aren’t allowed to communicate with organizations while they are going through the grant process. And the CDC’s money doesn’t come all at once.

So her solution was to split the money when the county got it, with five organizations getting paid first and nine mostly smaller groups getting funding when the CDC sent more money to the county.

“We didn’t communicate our intentions well,” Toomey said. “Communication with the community is key, and we’ll do a better job in the future.”

Fanning the flames of frustration is the history of mismanagement from Toomey's predecessor at the Fulton health department. After receiving $21.5 million in grant money from the CDC between 2012 and 2014, the county had $8.8 million in HIV grant money clawed backafter it failed to spendall of it on schedule. The county was later able to recover some of the money.

“One thing became very clear: there’s an immense level of lack of communication,” said Imara Canady, the regional director of communications and community engagement for the southern bureau of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “It’s disheartening to see there are still some basic challenges.”

Canady and others also expressed concern that members of the county’s HIV/AIDS task force were not told about the funding plans, and that there wasn’t more transparency about the process. Even county commissioners, who were scheduled to vote on the first round of funding last month, weren’t aware that the leaders of several organizations had concerns.

“It was not on their radar that there was an issue,” he said. “To have not had any level of communication is just not acceptable.”

Canady, a board member at AID Atlanta, said a lack of funding would have halted HIV testing services in vulnerable communities.

Atlanta is one of the hardest-hit areas for new cases of HIV. With delays in funding or concerns that money might not come through, he said, fewer people are tested for HIV. They aren’t able to learn their status, or be connected to care.

“God forbid if they are not renewed,” Canady said of the Wednesday vote.