A ruling that a medical society discriminated against a man by denying him a medical referral because he was infected with the AIDS virus sends a message to Maryland doctors that such bias will not be tolerated, say two University of Maryland student attorneys who represented the victim, who wished to be identified only as David.
The Oct. 4 ruling by the Howard County Human Rights Commission was the first in the state involving the health care of a person infected with the virus that causes the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"For doctors, the message is that bias in the treatment of AIDS patients will not be tolerated," J. Joseph Curran III, the son of the Maryland attorney general and one of the student attorneys, said yesterday.
"For those who have the diagnosis -- it's be brave, like David, and report anything that discriminates against you," said Marylee Hannan, the other student attorney.
Yesterday, the University of Maryland AIDS Legal Clinic, which provides student attorneys to represent plaintiffs who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, discussed the impact of the discrimination ruling against the Howard County Medical Society.
"This ruling sets a precedent," said Deborah Weimer, an assistant professor at the UM law school who supervises the student attorneys in the AIDS Legal Clinic, which was established in 1987 as the first of its kind in the country.
The panel found that "overt discrimination" occurred when Kimberly Davis, the medical society's executive secretary, told David "none of their physicians would accept an HIV-positive patient."
According to legal papers filed in the case, that was Davis'
response during a call David made seeking a referral to a local physician for routine and emergency care. He said he explained to her that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital were treating his HIV-infection.
Thinking Davis was confused, David said he repeated his request and she gave him the same answer, according to the legal papers.
David is in his "mid-30s" and on Social Security disability due to "burnout" after 10 years as a paramedic and instructor for emergency medical technicians.
The rights panel awarded him $1,376.30 in damages. Of this sum, $1,000 was for "the humiliation and mental anguish" he suffered due to discrimination.
In addition, $25 was granted for an apartment application fee for a move to Anne Arundel County, where David said he was able to find an internist willing to provide him with routine and 'N emergency health care. He was also awarded $351.30 for psychological and physical treatment.
"I'm relieved that it's over unless the ruling is appealed," said David, who tested positive for the AIDS virus five years ago and at present has no symptoms of the disease. "This has been very hard on my mother and siblings and their families."
Both sides have until Nov. 3 to appeal the panel's decision in Howard County Circuit Court.
Linda Lamone, an attorney who represents the society, said no decision had been made on an appeal.
Weimer said the legal clinic does not intend to file an appeal, but will reconsider if the medical society appeals.
"We're disappointed with the ruling," Lamone said. "I don't think it's the correct decision. I think, at the most, this was a misunderstanding in what was being asked for by the two people involved."
According to Davis' testimony, David wanted a doctor who had treated HIV-positive patients, Lamone said. And, based on that, Davis' response was that "I only list doctors by specialty, not by disease," Lamone said.
"That's simply not true and never has been," she said of Davis' alleged response that no member of the society would accept an HIV-positive patient.
Lamone said that the first HIV-positive patient in the county in 1985 was treated by Dr. Jerry Seals, a society member "who still treats HIV-positive patients. . . ."
The ruling was based on an interpretation several years ago by the Maryland Human Relations Commission of a longstanding state statute which said that persons who are HIV positive are handicapped and, because of that, cannot be discriminated against. The same position subsequently was adopted by Howard's panel.
The county panel also ordered the society to adopt a policy specifically indicating that discrimination based on handicap, including HIV infection, will not be tolerated.
Weimer said the legal clinic is now considering screening dentists, employers and insurance companies to see if they are practicing discrimination in their dealings with HIV-infected persons.