TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas' leading gay rights group and the American Civil Liberties Union worry that state legislators are moving to end a longstanding ban on quarantining people with AIDS or the virus that causes it, but lawmakers and the state's top health official said Monday such fears are unfounded.
Lobbyists for the ACLU and the Kansas Equality Coalition said they're not satisfied with a compromise offered by legislative negotiators who are working on the final version of a bill meant to help emergency personnel who may be exposed to infectious diseases. Three senators and three House members hope to agree this week on language.
The bill directs the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to adopt regulations by the end of the year to protect medical personnel, laboratory workers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and prison employees who may be exposed to diseases or infectious materials. Backers say a single set of statewide rules — instead of a hodge-podge of local policies — will make it easier for such personnel to learn whether they've been exposed to diseases and to get tested.
But versions of the measure approved by each chamber last month also would repeal a 25-year-old law specifically prohibiting state and local health officials from quarantining people with AIDS or HIV. Last week, lawmakers reviewed additional language allowing quarantines for diseases "injurious to the public health" only when reasonable and "medically necessary."
ACLU and Equality Coalition lobbyists said they're not arguing Kansas health officials are contemplating mass quarantines. Instead, they said, they believe eliminating the specific legal protections will permit local officials to threaten to isolate individuals.
"It can be used as a tool of local harassment," said Holly Weatherford, lobbyist for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.
Critics of the bill have been vocal enough at the Statehouse to prompt a public defense of the measure from the state health department.
State Epidemiologist Charles Hunt said in a statement last week that much of the criticism is based on a "false premise." Even without additional language, health officials still couldn't impose quarantines without showing they're medically necessary, state health officials said.
HIV is spread most often through sexual contact, contaminated needles or syringes, infected blood or blood products or from infected women to their babies at birth or through breastfeeding.
"It would never be necessary," KDHE Secretary Robert Moser, a physician, said of a possible quarantine for an AIDS or HIV patient.
Several legislators involved in the debate agreed, and Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who's often an ally of the ACLU, said critics of the bill haven't provided evidence that the bill could lead to quarantines.
But Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and one of the negotiators, said even if health officials aren't contemplating quarantines, lawmakers still should keep the legal protections in place to lessen the stress on AIDS and HIV patients and their families.
And Tom Witt, the Equality Coalition's executive director and lobbyist, said critics at least want additional language saying any rules for quarantines must be "based on current medical and scientific knowledge."
"They can talk all they want about what the intent behind the bill is," he said. "It doesn't change the current bill."
The bill is Sub for HB 2183.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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