August 6, 2003
When the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania was founded 15 years ago, HIV-positive children were being barred from classrooms, dentists refused to treat infected patients, and many of the firm's clients died before their cases went to a jury.
"We would go through a generation of clients every 18 months," said David W. Webber, who founded the nonprofit in Philadelphia in 1988.
But medical advances have dramatically increased the life span of those with HIV/AIDS, and public opinion about the disease has changed, resulting in a transformation of ALPP's work. Today, discrimination complaints comprise just 5 percent of the firm's caseload.
A more typical client includes someone well enough to return to work after years on a disability pension but needing help keeping government health insurance. The lawyers also dispense advice for people who are too ill to work and need public assistance to pay their rent. The firm has a program to help those clients whose savings were depleted by high medical bills restructure their debt.
"We never would have been doing that 15 years ago," said Ronda Goldfein, executive director of ALPP. "It's really a whole range of things that just weren't possible when we started."
What has not changed is the demand for the firm's services. Last year, ALPP fielded 1,779 requests for legal help. The firm mostly deals with clients who cannot afford a private lawyer. Sixty-two percent of last year's clients were black or Hispanic.
Goldfein added that discrimination cases may never go away entirely. On Friday, ALPP settled a case regarding a bus driver who, after learning that his passengers included men with HIV/AIDS bound for a legislative meeting in Harrisburg last year, refused to continue driving. "We are still seeing the cases where someone has said, 'You've got AIDS? We don't want you here,'" said Goldfein.