Seeing as the HIV/AIDS infection rate in the District is the worst in the country, one would assume the D.C. government is working tirelessly to fund efforts to treat and limit the spread of the disease. But given the news lately, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

The Washington Post reported on Oct. 18 that the D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS Administration has shelled out over $25 million in recent years to “small nonprofit agencies marked by questionable spending, a lack of clients, or lapses in record-keeping and care.”

Debra Rowe, the former HIV/AIDS Administration housing chief, has been blamed for many of the problems within the agency; she reportedly cleared the allocation of public funds to these irresponsible groups. Findings show that some of the 90 nonprofits in question created fake resumés and consulting contracts to validate eligibility for increased funds. Others failed to file tax returns or acquire city business license, and some squandered funds on executive pay and travel, according to the Post.

Shannon Hader, the current HIV/AIDS Administration director, took over the post in October 2007. Though she has not been blamed for many of the problems, no drastic policy shifts have been made since she took over. Under her watch, the administration has shortened the list of nonprofits to which D.C. allocates funds and has implemented more thorough site inspections of support centers.

In the wake of the Post’s findings, this past Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles announced a closer investigation of the failure to appropriate proper amounts of money to these nonprofit companies. The FBI investigation of the matter, which began in 2006, is ongoing.

This raises big questions about leadership, oversight and appropriations.

In the 2009 fiscal year, only 51 percent – or $12.3 billion nationally – of federal funding for HIV/AIDS was dedicated to care and treatment of the epidemic within the United States. Responsible nonprofits find it difficult or impossible to operate at their full potentials within these bounds as it is, citing insufficient funds, budget cuts and limited capacities for growth. Irresponsible government practices – not to mention corrupt business practices – make these scarce funds even scarcer.

We applaud Fenty in particular for recognizing the HIV/AIDS Administration’s shortcomings and for launching a targeted investigation to overcome them.

As Fenty moves forward, we suggest that he and other D.C. officials look into another route. Appointing a D.C. HIV/AIDS funding czar – one that would be separate from the current institutional role that Hader fills – would be a wise move. A drastic shift in perspective and strategy is necessary, and a dose of fresh thinking and innovation could be just the right idea.

Unfortunately, the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration’s questionable motives and failure to properly allocate funds hurts the groups that were established to serve infected and at-risk D.C. residents. Unless the D.C. government engages in some sort of forward-thinking damage control, its bad habits will continue to fester, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the District won’t slow down anytime soon.

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