An official of the Actors' Fund of America suggested a measured response to a recent New York State Court of Appeals decision requiring medical professionals to treat patients infected with the AIDS virus. In an Oct. 15 ruling, the court broadened the interpretation of the state's human rights law, which forbids discrimination against people with medical disabilities in public accommodations.
"The fact that we need this kind of legislation is an acknowledgement that there is discrimination among health care providers," said Eric Stamm, coordinator of AIDS services for The Actors' Fund. "Unfortunately, discrimination isn't something that can be legislated away; education is also vital."
The court ruled in two separate cases brought by people who claimed to have been denied dental care because they had tested positive for, or been exposed to, the AIDS virus. Private medical offices should be considered public accommodations, the court decided, in that they provide conveniences and services to the public.
Stamm feels that the court's decision has more symbolic than practical significance. "If dentists don't want to treat people with HIV," he said, "it probably means they don't have experience in that area. Find someone who wants to work with you, and that person will be in a position to help you." He noted that there are several oral manifestations of AIDS, and that treatment is, of course, much more effective in the early stages.
A Dentist Reacts
"I think the State Court of Appeals ruling is wonderful," said John Wolf, DDS, who in the mid-1980s won a high-profile lawsuit against a landlord dentist who had ordered Wolf to cease his treatment of HIV-positive patients. "Health care practitioners are licensed by the state to be public servants, so their offices should be considered places of public accommodation.
"People should not be denied access to care because of their HIV status," Wolf said. "It's been proven throughout 15 years of the AIDS epidemic that the likelihood of this virus being trasmitted between patient and doctor is extremely remote, if it even exists at all--especially when proper barrier techniques are used."
Wolf considers the appeals court's decision to be especially important for people statewide. "In New York City, I believe, complaints about denial of services have usually been settled in favor of the patient," he said. "Elsewhere, it's been difficult for patients to win against health care practitioners."
Like many other dentists and doctors, Wolf has been heavily involved in treatment of persons with HIV and AIDS through his service to the theatrical community. "The Actors' Fund has actually paid us to care for patients with no other options," said Wolf, who has discounted his services to both Equity and non-Equity performers.
"It's incumbent on health care professionals to become more knowledgeable about HIV transmission," Wolf concluded, "so they can better serve people with the virus--rather than refuse to