A Kansas bill designed to help protect paramedics and firefighters appears to have been hijacked to potentially legalize quarantining people with HIV/AIDS.
As originally introduced (pdf), HB2183 would allow firefighters and paramedics exposed to bodily fluids during the course of their duties to require the person they were treating or helping to take a blood test to rule out HIV infection. Currently this can only happen via a court order which, obviously, takes time.
However, because the bill dealt specifically with HIV, lawmakers on the Committee of Health and Human Services decided to substitute the bill (pdf) for one that would widen the bill’s scope to include other infectious diseases. Nothing controversial so far, except in so doing they left intact the following:
The secretary of health and environment is authorized to issue such orders and adopt rules and regulations as may be necessary to prevent the spread and dissemination of diseases injurious to the public health, including, but not limited to, providing for the testing for such diseases and the isolation and quarantine of persons afflicted with or exposed to such diseases.
while striking the preceding paragraph that exempted HIV/AIDS patients:
(a) but the infectious or contagious disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome or any causative agent thereof shall not constitute an infections or contagious disease for the purpose of [this directive].
The legislation also appears to give room to unqualified forced testing where it says, “providing for the testing for such diseases and the isolation and quarantine of persons afflicted with or exposed to such diseases.”
This marked departure from existing state law, federal law and all reputable health advice surrounding HIV/AIDS, drew severe concern from many awareness groups and wider health bodies, including D. Charles Hunt, Director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics, who wrote a letter entitled “Open Letter Regarding Kansas House Bill 2183″ in which he warned, “Isolating persons with HIV infection or quarantining persons exposed to HIV would not be reasonable or medically necessary, and, therefore, would not be legal.”
A number of Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about this and Senator Marci Francisco offered an amendment to restore the exemption.
As you can see in this version of the bill, the state Senate rejected the amendment. Why? Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) reportedly said during debate that Francisco’s amendment would make the bill discriminatory because it would separate people with a specific disease from others. Treating different infections differently, fancy that.
The senate went on to advance the bill, 29 to 11, last Thursday. It rocketed through the Republican-controlled state House earlier this month 122 to 1.
The bill will now go through a process of further committee wrangling, but controlling Republicans in the state legislature want this bill to pass so a vote is expected soon. They maintain that health officials need this sweeping power in order to prevent future health crises.
However, by first casually striking the HIV exemption and then refusing to restore it when objections were raised that attempted to inform and educate on why HIV is different from other infections covered by the bill, the Kansas legislature has drawn sharp criticism among HIV/AIDS awareness groups who say this is a return to the pre-1988 landscape when quarantining of those with HIV/AIDS was legal and a lethal stigma existed.
Cody Patton, Executive Director of Positive Directions, has clarified that he doesn’t believe the bill will be used to stigmatize HIV/AIDS patients, but rather as a way of supporting religious-based animus against HIV/AIDS patients and to deny them their rights:
We live in a very conservative state and I’m afraid there are still many people, especially in rural Kansas, that have inadequate education and understanding concerning HIV/AIDS. My fear would not be the state uses the law as some way to move all people living with HIV/AIDS into an isolated community, but that this law could allow some county employee to use this law to justify their religious beliefs over their professional responsibilities and discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS.
Activists have also warned that HIV/AIDS detection and prevention never does well in a climate of oppression and stigmatization and this, they say, is precisely what the bill would create.
Image credit: Thinkstock.