The Dallas County Health and Human Services Department has had a rough week. First, the state cracked down on the department for allegedly falsifying county STI records. The manager of HIV-STI division, Lashonda Worthey, has been fired, and the Texas Department of State Health Services is set to launch a criminal investigation into the department.
Now a federal official says the department is facing an additional investigation for alleged misuse of funds for the Ryan White/AIDS program in Dallas, the Ryan White Planning Council. The federally funded program is intended to pay medical costs for HIV-positive county residents who are unable to fund their own treatment. Several million dollars are sent from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) into the county program every year.
NBC5 first reported that feds are looking into how the Ryan White money is being spent. In a March site visit to the department, the HRSA found that the Ryan White program in Dallas fell short in nearly every examined area. In a follow-up report sent to the department and obtained by Unfair Park, the HRSA called attention to confusion among staffers concerning finances and federal accounting requirements:
There is a lack of understanding of all the Ryan White Requirements for all staff who are involved with the administration, compliance and oversight of the program. Since many of the staff are new both at the Administrative Agency and the Auditor's Office, the staff do not have a good understanding of the legislative and programmatic requirements of the Ryan White ... Program.
Several Ryan White Planning Council staff members declined to be interviewed, but community advocate and vice-chair of the Ryan White Planning Council, Ben Martinez, spoke about what he believes is too much secrecy being kept around the organization.
He said many top staffers are not communicating well with program members. "It's a very frustrating situation," Martinez said. "They're saying something's wrong, but they can't tell you what it is. We know we have cancer, but we don't know where it is."
Martinez alleges that the federal HRSA investigation is likely a trickle-down of the state criminal investigation into the falsified STI records. When federal money is put into the Dallas Ryan White fund, the Planning Council is responsible for deciding who needs the money. "We rely on data that is driven by county reporting. So if the reporting is skewed, everything were doing is not correct," Martinez said. "If the information is falsified, we could very well have a larger community of HIV-positive people in Dallas than we thought."
Top Ryan White officials are claiming that there is no federal inquiry into the department and council. Judge Clay Jenkins, CEO of the Ryan White Planning Council, denied any federal investigation.
"I have not received confirmation of or a briefing on a HRSA investigation," he said in a statement. The public information officer for the DCHHSD, Erikka Neroes, also adamantly denied any federal investigation several times in both e-mails and on the phone. "We have been notified that there is not an investigation regarding the Ryan White program," she emphasized.
But Martinez said formal notices have been sent to the DCHHSD and Planning Council, informing staffers that there would be a federal investigation. And Martin Kramer, Director of Communications for the HRSA, also confirmed the investigation and was very clear: "The Division of Financial Integrity does have an initial inquiry into the Ryan White funds in Dallas," he said. "There's an initial investigation into the use of the Ryan White funds."
When informed that the feds had confirmed that there will be a federal investigation into the department, Neroes again denied the investigation, saying perhaps there was a language miscommunication between the department. When informed that Kramer had used the very word "investigation" to describe their action against the DCHHSD, Neroes bent but wouldn't break.
"Maybe there is an investigation, she said, "maybe there isn't an investigation."
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