The Kansas legislature is near making into law a bill that critics say could allow officials to quarantine and isolate people living with HIV/AIDS.
House Bill 2183 is intended to protect emergency workers who could be exposed to various infectious diseases while helping those in need. It authorizes the secretary of the Department of Health and Environment to issue orders and adopt rules and regulations “as may be necessary” to prevent the spread of diseases that harm public health. That includes, but isn’t limited to, “Providing for the testing for such diseases and the isolation and quarantine of persons afflicted with or exposed to such disease,” according to the proposed bill's language.
The bill was passed by both the state's House and Senate. A conference committee is finalizing its language before returning it to both chambers for an up-or-down vote, after which it will go to the governor to be signed into law. The measure could be signed by May.
Kansas banned the quarantine of those living with HIV/AIDS in 1988. But the proposed law removed that exemption and places the virus under the head “other potentially infectious materials,” which subject HIV-positive individuals to quarantine and critics are worried about possible harassment.
Democratic Sen. Marci Francisco offered an amendment that was designed not to change the intent of the law but rather to clarify it. “No part of this act and amendments thereto shall authorize the isolation or quarantine of persons afflicted or exposed to the disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome or any causative agent thereof,” her amendment stated.
However, Republicans rejected that amendment, much to the anger of equal rights groups concerned that the proposed bill could lead to the possible harassment of those with HIV/AIDS.
“I fear that it sends the signal that we are taking away a long-standing, clear prohibition against isolation and quarantine for people with HIV/AIDS,” Francisco said in a phone interview on Friday morning.
“Isolation and quarantine are very powerful steps to take,” she added. “I think we have an opportunity to indicate to a group of people who have been discriminated against that that’s not our intention. I would like to make that clear to them.”
State Epidemiologist Charles Hunt wrote an open letter claiming that Bill 2183 has been “mischaracterized” and was “never about isolation or quarantine related to persons with HIV infection.” He pointed to current laws requiring that any isolation or quarantine be “reasonable and medically necessary.”
“Isolating persons with HIV infection or quarantining persons exposed to HIV would not be reasonable or medically necessary, and, therefore, would not be legal,” the letter read.
Still, there is concern among leaders of the Kansas Equality Coalition, or KEC, who believe that without clearly stating the exemption of HIV-infected individuals, some may view the law as an opening to harass those living with the disease.
“It’s not that we are going to see mass movement to quarantine people with HIV,” said Thomas Witt, executive director of KEC. “But we will see harassment of people with HIV in Kansas. … This is just another opportunity to harass the LGBT [community] in Kansas.”
Witt said his concern is not that people in Kansas aren’t educated about the transmission of the disease but that there are people in Kansas who “have hostility to LGBT people and they feel safe expressing that because of these laws.”
Lawmakers have since proposed compromise language to the bill, limiting it to only when it's “medically necessary and reasonable," which they feel will clarify the bill’s intent and scope.
“We think that is the best language that’s going to come out of the process this late in the game,” Witt said.