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Any recourse if a dentist discriminates?
Mar 17, 1998

I went to a new dentist and thought I should mention that I was HIV-positive. My appointment was at 10 am and I am on Medicaid. Anyway, when I told the dentist he left the room and then I saw people peeking into the room looking at me. A dental assistant started crying and I was told someone would be with me soon. Hours passed. I was so upset. Finally at 4 pm a dentist came. He put on two pairs of gloves and extra face mask and no dental assistant would come to help him. He was ok and took care of me. But it was so traumatic for me. I cried for three days. It was the worse day of my life. Anything I could do about this horrible experience?

Response from Ms. Breuer

Dental offices are covered as "public accommodations" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability. (HIV and AIDS are "disabilities" within the meaning of the act.)

In addition this particular office is also covered by another anti-discrimination law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, because it accepts Medicaid which is a federal grant.

Further, federal law requires all medical personnel to take "universal precautions," treating all patients as if they are infected with HIV, hepatitis B, and other bloodborne pathogens. Therefore a dentist who refuses care to an HIV positive patient or treats that patient differently based on HIV status alone may violate three federal laws.

However, your "recovery" (money damages) may be limited, because you were eventually treated by a dentist in the office. You may at the very least report the dentist to the state dental board and send a letter informing the office of its legal obligation to provide service to people with HIV, perhaps seeking to connect the office with HIV educators to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

Contact your local HIV and AIDS Legal Services organization or a civil rights attorney for more information on anti-discrimination law in your state and to help you assess your options. For a referral to an HIV and AIDS Legal Service organization in your state call HALSA at (213) 993-1640.

David Grunwald



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