Massachusetts Legislature Considers Measure Allowing Exception in Confidentiality of HIV Test Results
The Massachusetts General Assembly's Joint Committee on Health Care last week held a hearing on a bill (SB 647) that would allow public health or safety officials who are exposed to a person's bodily fluid while working to learn whether the person is HIV-positive, the Providence Journal reports. Current state law requires hospitals and clinics to keep a patient's HIV status confidential. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Michael Morrissey (D), would create an exception that would allow firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and medical personnel who are scratched, bitten or pricked with a hypodermic needle while on duty to file a petition requesting to learn the patient's HIV status. Under the bill, the hospital or clinic performing the testing would not be liable for releasing test results. Some people at the hearing said that the bill would encroach on patient confidentiality, while others testified that the safety of medical workers should "trump" doctor-patient confidentiality, according to the Journal. Mary Ellen Jepsen, a nurse practitioner, called on legislators to vote against the bill, saying that it sends a "negative message" and that the risk of contracting HIV while caring for patients is "negligible." However, Roberta Wright, a registered nurse, said that she had to take up to 16 medications after accidentally being pricked by a needle used on a patient who refused HIV testing. She said that the incident was "above and beyond" her duties as a nurse. The state Department of Public Health has no position on the legislation, according to the Journal.
Other HIV/AIDS Policy Changes
The committee also is debating a bill (SB 545) that would require the state Department of Public Health and the Executive Office of Public Safety to develop guidelines for education and training requirements for all health care providers and HIV/AIDS counselors. Supporters say the measure will cut health care costs by helping workers recognize the disease in its early stages, according to the Journal (Stickgold, Providence Journal, 1/14). In addition, the Department of Public Health has offered to help school districts in the state develop formal policies to deal with HIV/AIDS in schools. The Swansea school district, which local health services director Maureen Bushell said "wrote the book" on school AIDS policy, has not adopted a formal written policy. The Swansea School Committee in 1985 became the first district in the United States to voluntarily allow an HIV-positive child to continue to attend school. Bushell said that the district has been complying with state guidelines and recommendations, guaranteeing confidentiality for HIV-positive students and training workers to properly handle and dispose of bodily fluids, according to the Journal. Bushell said she is leaning toward asking district administrators to recommend that the Swansea School Committee adopt state guidelines as formal district policy, according to the Journal (Reynolds, Providence Journal, 1/14).