A ruling by a county human rights panel sends a message to the medical community that failure to provide medical care to AIDS patients will not be tolerated, said an attorney who won an AIDS discrimination case last week involving a former county resident.
The panel concluded on Thursday that the Howard County Medical Society discriminated against a man by denying him a medical referral because he was infected with the AIDS virus.
"All doctors have an obligation to treat HIV patients and other people with disabilities," said Deborah J. Weimer, the man's attorney and an assistant professor of law at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore. Weimer made the comments yesterday at a press conference at the law school, where she supervises the AIDS Legal Clinic.
"There's a small group of dedicated medical people at Maryland and at Hopkins seeing this community, but as the epidemic continues, there will be a need for other doctors to be willing to take on the responsibility," Weimer said.
Either party has 30 days to appeal the panel's decision to Circuit Court. Weimer said she is happy with the decision and probably won't appeal for more damages unless the medical society appeals the decision.
The society has not yet decided whether to appeal.
The panel found that "overt discrimination occurred" when the medical society's secretary told the man that "none of their physicians would accept an HIV-positive patient" when he called for a routine medical referral in August of 1988.
The panel awarded the former Columbia resident $1,376 in damages to compensate him for the humiliation and mental anguish he suffered as a result of his call to the medical society.
In addition, the panel ordered the medical society to adopt a policy specifically stating that discrimination based on handicap, including exposure to the HIV virus, will not be tolerated.
It's a tremendous relief," said the man, whose first name is David. He is in his mid-30s and lives in Anne Arundel county.
"It's one thing to be discriminated against, but to have to go and prove it and convince people of it has been very difficult for my family and others involved," he said.
The medical society has consistently denied any discriminatory practices and claims that many of its member doctors treat AIDS patients.
Society president and county health officer Dr. Joyce Boyd said last week that she was "very disappointed" in the panel's decision.
The society maintains that the discrimination incident was the result of a "misunderstanding."
However, the panel found that this explanation was "not credible."
The medical society's attorney, Linda Lamon, argued that the man was using the case as an "opportunity to attack organized medicine's approach toward AIDS . . . and make some money."
The panel, made up of three members of the county Human Rights Commission, based its decision on testimony heard during eight nights of public hearings last spring and summer.
The man claimed that the society's refusal to provide him with a medical referral caused him emotional and physical problems and ultimately forced him to move from the county. He was seeking $50,000 in damages.
"I don't think the money reflects the trauma I've gone through," said the man, who moved to Columbia in 1987 to participate in drug research projects at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Weimer said the county Human Rights Commission doesn't have the authority to award more than out-of-pocket expenses.
Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, the man has been unemployed since 1984, when he left his paramedic job due to stress.
He called the Howard County Medical Society in August of 1988 to find a doctor to provide him with routine medical care, telling medical secretary Kim Davis that doctors at Hopkins were treating his HIV infection.
Davis' response, he said, was that "none of the doctors in the society are willing to accept patients who are HIV-positive."
The panel found that the medical society violated the county's public accommodation law by failing to provide the man a medical referral because of his HIV infection, interpreted by the panel to be a handicap.
The medical society argued that the man's HIV infection wasn't a handicap and the society's referral service didn't fit the definition of a public accommodation. The county code states that a public accommodation is any place that invites the public to use its goods and services, whether or not for profit.
By failing to provide the man with a medical referral the society also violated a state law passed in the 1989 General Assembly session which says that health care providers cannot discriminate against people with an HIV infection, Weimer said.