A Kansas bill designed to help protect paramedics and firefighters appears to have been hijacked to potentially legalize quarantining people with HIV/AIDS.
The bill 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 takes time.
However, because the bill dealt specifically with HIV, lawmakers on the Committee of Health and Human Services decided to substitute the bill for one that would widen the bill’s scope to include other infectious diseases. In doing so, they left in 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.
But left out the following paragraph that exempted people with living with HIV:
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].
This departure from existing state law, federal law and all reputable health advice surrounding HIV/AIDS, drew severe concern from many awareness and advocacy groups. A number of Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about and Senator Marci Francisco offered an amendment to restore the exemption. The amendment failed in the conservatively controlled Seante.
The Senate went on to advance the bill, 29 to 11. It had already passed 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, 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, stated 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.