HIV/AIDS has been unlike any other public health issue of our time. The epidemic began in a cloud a fear because, at first, no one knew how it was spread. When it became clear that HIV was infectious, and that it was potentially fatal, there was no treatment. This led to widespread stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
In response, public health officials worked tirelessly to provide the general public with accurate information about how HIV was, and was not, transmitted, and how people could protect themselves. Public health officials realized that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS was getting in the way of testing and prevention efforts and keeping people from getting healthcare.
Despite the best efforts of public health officials, medical professionals, HIV/AIDS advocates, and people living with HIV/AIDS, HIV-related discrimination continued. People living with HIV/AIDS -- and even some people who were merely rumored to have HIV -- were fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied access to medical care and social services based on their HIV status.
After years of widespread discrimination, Congress passed a series of Federal laws to protect people living with HIV/AIDS from discrimination based on their HIV status and to give them the same legal protections as any other person with a medical disability.
One of the first legal protections was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It expanded the reach of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and made discrimination on the basis of disability unlawful. In the first Supreme Court case involving HIV/AIDS discrimination (Bragdon v. Abbot), the Court ruled that Congress intended HIV infection to be included as a disability under the ADA. HIV infection has been found to meet the definition of disability under Federal and state laws protecting the disabled from all forms of discrimination. For more information on the ADA and how it may affect you, see CDC's Business Responds to AIDS and Labor Responds to AIDS: HIV & the Law -- ADA.
A few years later, Congress enacted another important legal protection, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). HIPAA is designed to protect the privacy of patients' medical records and other health information. It also provides patients with access to their medical records and with significant control over how their personal health information is used and disclosed. HIPAA has proven to be very effective in preventing discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS by preventing others from knowing their HIV status.
People with HIV/AIDS who believe that their health information privacy rights have been violated may be eligible to file a complaint. For information about your privacy protections, see the Office for Civil Rights' Health Information Privacy.
Fact Sheets and Print Materials
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Frequently Asked Questions
Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit housing discrimination?
Housing discrimination is not covered by the ADA. However, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which is primarily enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), prohibits housing discrimination against people with disabilities, including those living with HIV/AIDS. For more information, see HUD's Housing Discrimination Complaints.
Can my insurance company drop me now that I have been diagnosed with HIV?
There are no simple answers to that question. You do have some protections. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) helps people with HIV/AIDS get and keep their health insurance. HIPAA provides several protections important to people with HIV/AIDS:
- It limits (but doesn't eliminate) the ability of insurance companies to exclude you from coverage if you have a pre-existing condition.
- If you have a family member who has had health problems in the past, or is having them now, HIPAA keeps group health plans from denying you coverage or charging additional fees for coverage because of your family member's health.
- It guarantees certain small business employers (and certain individuals who lose job-related coverage) the right to purchase individual health insurance.
- HIPAA guarantees, in most cases, that employers or individuals who purchase health insurance can renew the coverage, regardless of any health conditions of individuals covered under the insurance policy.
Regardless of your health status, it's important to understand your health insurance so that, if you get sick, you know what to expect.
For more information, see CDC's HIV and the Law: HIPAA.
HIV, Employment Discrimination and the Law
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability. The ADA, which covers employers of 15 or more people, applies to employment decisions at all stages. Court decisions have found that an individual with even asymptomatic HIV is protected under this law.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) addresses some of the barriers to healthcare facing people with HIV, as well as other vulnerable populations. HIPAA gives people with group coverage new protections from discriminatory treatment, makes it easier for small groups (such as businesses with a small number of employees) to obtain and keep health insurance coverage, and gives those losing/leaving group coverage new options for obtaining individual coverage.
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) applies to private-sector employers with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the work site. Eligible employees may take leave for serious medical conditions or to provide care for an immediate family member with a serious medical condition, including HIV/AIDS. Eligible employees are entitled to a total of 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave during any 12-month period.
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 (COBRA) allows employees to continue their health insurance coverage at their own expense for a period of time after their employment ends. For most employees ceasing work for health reasons, the period of time to which benefits may be extended ranges from 18 to 36 months.
For more information, see CDC's Business Responds to AIDS/Labor Responds to AIDS: HIV is Still at Work.
Filing a Charge of Employment Discrimination
Any individual who believes that his or her employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In addition, an individual, an organization, or an agency may file a charge on behalf of another person in order to protect the aggrieved person's identity.
For more information, see EEOC's The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individual With a Disability.
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