DENVER — The small, unmarked office is tucked away on the third floor of a brick building. It is off limits to all but two clerks and a handful of senior officials and is secured with wired doors, motion detectors, silent alarms and infrared devices.
"We're not the CIA," says one of the officials. "This is the best we could do."
What is being protected has nothing to do with national security or corporate patents, for the office is run by the state Department of Health, and in it are the medical files of thousands of Coloradans who have had tuberculosis, syphilis and other communicable diseases, including 10,000 people tested for the virus that causes AIDS.
In terms of jobs, litigation and personal relationships, the damage resulting from a leak in the confidentiality of those people's names could be painful and costly.
To Colorado's homosexual and bisexual groups, the list of names--Colorado does not offer anonymous testing for AIDS--has come to symbolize their fear that they are an unprotected minority.
Even more worrisome to them is legislation being drafted that would give the state health director far-reaching powers to order mandatory tests for suspected AIDS carriers and to restrict--or quarantine--for up to three months infected people who ignored a "cease and desist" order to halt sexual activity.
Anyone violating the provisions of the new statute would be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $3,000 and a year's imprisonment.
"The Health Department is dragging out the old quarantine statutes from the 1930s, and the feeling in the gay community is, if they want my name, I'd better not trust them," said Tom Witte of the Coalition for Political Responsibility. "Our past history shows us we are discriminated against, so it's hardly surprising we're suspicious."
Grappling With Questions
Throughout the country, other state legislatures are also grappling with the questions being raised in Colorado: How do you protect the well-being of the majority while defending the rights of the minority? How do you deal with AIDS carriers, such as prostitutes, whose continued promiscuous behavior repeatedly threatens the health of others? Should AIDS--a sexually transmitted disease most prevalent among homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners--be dealt with like, say, tuberculosis, an airborne disease that knows no sexual preference?
Last year more than 200 AIDS-related bills were introduced in 35 states, the Intergovernmental Health Policy Project at George Washington University said. Forty passed. Six states considered making it unlawful to discriminate against AIDS carriers, but only California and Maine adopted such legislation. Of the 160 or so bills withdrawn or defeated, several appeared to reflect the prejudices that homosexuals fear could lead to a backlash against them if the epidemic continues to spread. AIDS thus far has afflicted about 29,000 victims in the United States, more than half of whom have died.
Murder Charge Proposal
West Virginia heard a proposal to make the transmission of AIDS a first-degree-murder crime. A Colorado bill would have made the same offense punishable by four years in prison, and Hawaii would have made it a felony for people with the disease to donate blood or expose others to AIDS through sexual contact.
Alabama would have quarantined indefinitely all prisoners with AIDS under one proposal, and Washington would have isolated victims in a "suitable building" to be leased or constructed by the Health Department.
In California, Proposition 64, a referendum that would have required state officials to collect the names of AIDS carriers and patients and remove them from some jobs, was defeated by a 2-1 margin by voters in November. Seventeen states considered--but none passed--legislation requiring an AIDS test for all applicants seeking a marriage license.
"The threat of increased restrictive legislative proposals will worsen each year because the number of AIDS cases is increasing yearly," said Nan D. Hunter of the ACLU in New York City. "As the number of people affected directly or indirectly grows, so too will the perceived need to regulate more stringently. Unfortunately, some of these proposed regulations restrict civil rights, while at the same time making very little medical sense."
The existing Colorado law does not specifically mention AIDS. It gives the health director broad and vaguely defined powers to do virtually whatever he finds necessary to protect the public's health--powers that are common in many states. Supporters of the new legislation, which the Health Department helped to draft and Rep. Dorothy Wham of Denver is sponsoring, deny that there is anything Draconian or repressive in the measure.