A true friend of the deceased battles a wrong

DAN RODRICKS

June 26, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Fred Petrich will tell you that, as he walked out of the funeral home that day in 1990, he sensed something was wrong. But it wasn't until nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital spoke up that he decided to vent his outrage and report his suspicions.

Two and a half years later, he's still outraged -- and he's still waiting for the state of Maryland to act on his suspicions.

"I think I have been patient," he says. Contacting a newspaper columnist hadn't been in his original plans. This is not the kind of subject a man enjoys revisiting.

Some background:

In mid-December 1990, a terminally ill friend asked Mr. Petrich to make funeral arrangements for him. The friend, 57 years old and infected with AIDS, lay dying at Hopkins; he had been there since October. It was his wish that his remains be cremated and buried.

Mr. Petrich, a well-known voice instructor with students throughout the Baltimore area, went to a local funeral home to make arrangements.

When he was about to sign the contract, Mr. Petrich noticed something that raised both eyebrows -- a $450 fee for "special handling for infectious disease."

Mr. Petrich asked why it was included, bringing the cost of the contract to almost $2,000.

"That's our policy," he remembers being told by an official of the funeral establishment.

Mr. Petrich never returned to that funeral home.

When his friend died the following month, Mr. Petrich made arrangements through another establishment, which ultimately charged about $1,400 for its services. It did not charge for "special handling."

When Mr. Petrich told the nurses who had treated his friend about the additional $450 charge at the first funeral home, they suggested he report it to the state Board of Morticians. "[The nurses] told me that, from what they knew, funeral homes were not supposed to charge extra for handling people with AIDS," Mr. Petrich said.

The nurses were right.

That's state law, enacted in 1989 -- a prohibition against discriminatory practices, including the charging of additional fees, against any HIV-infected person, including one who has died and whose body has been brought to a funeral home. At the request of the morticians board, which wanted to ensure Maryland funeral directors understood the law, the attorney general's office wrote a clear and firm opinion about it.

"A mortician is subject to disciplinary action if the mortician 'discriminates' against any individual who is HIV-positive," the opinion stated. "The refusal to treat, or the imposition of higher costs for treating, an HIV-positive or otherwise infected body constitutes discrimination" in violation of state law.

The opinion further said: "Since morticians are required to employ universal precautions with all bodies, there is no rational basis for charging a higher 'handling' fee to family or friends of the deceased because the body was HIV-positive.

"The mortician would be taking actions that increase the cost of the service solely because the deceased was HIV-positive. . . . We do recognize that adopting universal precautions may ultimately increase a mortician's cost of doing business. We are not suggesting that this increase in operating costs may not be passed on to the consumer. However, increased costs associated with universal precautions should be passed on to the universe of consumers, not to the small subset of consumers seeking services for those known to be infected with HIV."

So, on its face, Mr. Petrich's specific complaint -- the charging of an additional fee for "special handling" of his friend's body -- appears to constitute discrimination.

The attorney general's opinion was written in June 1992, prompted partly as a result of Mr. Petrich's then 1 1/2 -year-old complaint.

Last week, Erich March, president of the morticians board, confirmed that Mr. Petrich's complaint has been referred to the attorney general's office for "review." But there is a backlog of cases there and, as of today -- 2 1/2 years after he first complained -- Mr. Petrich is still waiting for action.

"Quite frankly," Mr. March said, a bit glumly, "this is not unusual. We have several cases pending, and all the health occupation boards have a backlog."

Is this a system?

A friend of Mr. Petrich, Baltimore attorney Kenneth Meltzer, has followed the investigation into the complaint. Mr. Meltzer recently received a letter from the attorney general's office assuring that the case "will be diligently and thoroughly pursued."

And yet, as Mr. Meltzer said: "The bigger question is why they haven't done anything in 2 1/2 years."

Two and a half years. Fred Petrich should be applauded for his fortitude. Most people, their attitudes about government already jaded, would have given up by now.

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