Friday, October 31, 2008

Council Hearing on AIDS Funds

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2008 at 1:29 AM

Calling the issue “literally a matter of life and death,” Council Vice President Arnie Fielkow today convened a special housing and human needs committee to discuss longstanding funding delays for local HIV/AIDS agencies. Speaking before the committee, the director of the office in charge of the more than $7 million program said the funding process should improve next year.

     As reported earlier, even though the fiscal year for Part A Ryan White HIV/AIDS funds began in March, the city didn’t officially execute contracts until October, seven months later, and local agencies are only now receiving reimbursement for services already provided.

     With the funding delays, one agency, In This Together, that specialized in services for African Americans, could no longer pay its bills and was forced to send its clients elsewhere. Other agencies reported the need to secure lines of credit to continue services, and, in one case, putting personal property up as collateral on a loan.

     Fran Lawless, director of the Mayor’s Office of Health Policy and AIDS Funding, whose office is in charge of the Ryan White funds, told Fielkow and Councilwoman Stacy Head, the members of the Council present, the delayed contracts were partially due to a new electronic contract routing system, new procedures in City Hall and changes in federal requirements.

     Fielkow listened to Lawless’ explanation, but pointed out her office didn’t begin the funding process until late January while other cities like Baltimore start its process during the fall of the previous year and begin funding agencies in April. Lawless replied that her seven-member staff was busy during those months preparing a new grant application, submitting paperwork and making grant awards. Lawless added that Baltimore is able to do multiple year contracts with providers, and, unlike New Orleans, doesn’t have to wait for the official funding notice from Washington.

     “But don’t you understand the problem when you start a process one month before the fiscal year that the funding begins?” Feilkow asked. “It means that on the backend that by the time you get to award contracting and payment the agencies that are out there doing this service are literally from a cash-flow standpoint, six, seven months before they see their first check.”

     Lawless somewhat disputed that the agencies weren’t receiving funds during that time period, but added that she too wanted agencies to be paid on time. She said her office is examining ways to shorten the process such as requiring only new providers fill out funding requests and sending out the request for proposals in November.    

     Fielkow told Lawless he realized the contract problems didn’t apply only to her office, but were endemic to all of City Hall.

     “It’s amazing to me how contracts are held for months and months, and even when they’re ready to be signed.  They literally can be sitting on the Mayor’s desk for months to [be] signed,” Fielkow said.

     Later in the meeting, Fielkow tried to press Lawless for “ballpark (time) figures” for local agencies in terms of sending award letters, executing contracts and when they could expect payments.

    “The only thing I can give you comment on is payment,” Lawless replied, referring to the time after contracts have been executed, not the seven months leading up to the contracts. She added that she had no control over award letters.

     Fielkow closed the meeting by asking Lawless to return to the Council in January to give an update on the funding process and to form an investigative task force to find ways to improve the system. Lawless said such a group has already been formed.

     Afterwards, Fielkow said he felt hopeful that the situation would improve, but that it was up to the Council to hold those responsible for the programs accountable.

     “What we can’t do is force [local HIV/AIDS agencies] to go into the community to borrow money for nine months.”  

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