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Wants Anti-Bias Action Left to States : Bowen Against Federal AIDS Legal Protection

September 22, 1987|MARLENE CIMONS | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration opposes proposed federal legislation that would protect the rights of those infected with the AIDS virus, Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen said Monday.

Bowen, testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, said the Administration believes that the states, rather than the federal government, should ensure confidentiality of test-result information and prevent discrimination against such individuals.

Congress is considering a measure written by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the subcommittee, that would provide $400 million each year in grants for expanded programs of counseling and testing for AIDS infection, prohibit discrimination against infected persons and protect against the improper disclosure of test records and other information.

The bill "would create a burdensome new federal administrative enforcement bureaucracy which is not used to protect the rights of persons with any other disease or handicap," Bowen said.

"We do not believe that it is necessary to impose a federal presence in an area where states are actively working and experimenting unless we can propose a system that will not confuse the issue further," he added. "We do not think that federal intervention is necessary and are uncertain about what form that intervention would take."

Under questioning, Bowen acknowledged that the Administration's position may jeopardize its publicly stated goal of encouraging increased widespread routine voluntary testing for infection. Critics have said that, without strong protections of confidentiality and against discrimination, individuals will refuse to voluntarily undergo the testing procedure.

Nevertheless, Bowen said, "each state, with its own separate problems and needs, should have the opportunity to set its own rules."

Waxman, citing figures provided by the Congressional Research Service, said that only 29 states currently have confidentiality statutes, and "many of those laws are not adequate--in Connecticut, for example, a violation only brings a $25 fine."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and sponsor of the Senate companion bill, called the Administration's position "an unconscionable ideological retreat from leadership on AIDS."

Kennedy, noting that "virtually every medical professional organization and leading public health officials have emphasized the need for confidentiality and anti-discrimination protections," said it is "irresponsible for the Administration to leave these all-important issues to the states."

"It is an invitation to drive the epidemic underground and encourage its wildfire spread," he declared.

Bowen said that the Administration opposes increased funding for testing and counseling programs, saying that the current appropriation--a total of $90 million for fiscal 1988--was sufficient.

"In addition, states are contributing funds of their own to provide counseling and testing," he added.

But Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the subcommittee, said a subcommittee report calculated that it would cost about $725 million to test those in the nation considered at high risk for AIDS infection, which Wyden estimated at about 17 million persons. "Why does this Administration think $90 million will be enough?" Wyden asked Bowen.

Bowen said that Administration projections include only those at "highest" risk, a figure he said totals about 3 million. "This $90 million could reasonably be expected to reach 50% of those at highest risk," Bowen said.

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. It is commonly transmitted through anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.

In this country, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. More than 41,000 Americans have contracted AIDS, of whom more than 24,000 have died.

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