September 21, 2011
Health providers and advocates are divided over a bill intended to bring Massachusetts into compliance with CDC recommendations on making HIV testing a routine part of medical care. The bill would enable the informed consent process for HIV testing to be conducted orally and documented by the provider in medical records. Currently, the state requires written patient consent specifically for the HIV test.
However, to accommodate privacy concerns, legislators this year added a provision that would require a health care provider to obtain a patient's written consent every time his or her HIV-related information is shared with outside providers. Some stakeholders support that requirement. Others, however, balk at the bill they once backed, saying it would hinder HIV patients' ability to receive care in a timely fashion.
A coalition of more than 100 health care providers -- including Fenway Health, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Hospital Association -- is urging legislators and health officials in Gov. Deval Patrick's administration to block the bill. The measure has passed two subcommittees and awaits a full Senate vote.
"The entire country is going in the other direction, to make information sharing easier and more thorough," said Dr. Howard Heller, president of the Massachusetts Infectious Diseases Society. "This is a step backward."
The bill's supporters say such safeguards remain necessary to protect patients' privacy. "HIV is still stigmatized, and many people fear the disclosure of HIV status," said Ben Klein, AIDS law project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Other backers of the measure include the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the nonprofit AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.
Rebecca Haag, president and CEO of AIDS Action, noted her support of the bill's provision requiring health care providers to document that they offered HIV testing to a patient.