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Compromised HIV Testing Bill Passes House
by Amy Wooten

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A landmark HIV testing bill that will make voluntary testing easier passed the Illinois House unanimously ( 114-0 ) .

The bill, HB 980, sponsored by Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, originally included wording that would have eliminated consent and pre-test information in hopes of expanding HIV testing across the state. However, meetings with several groups such as AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and the Illinois Department of Public Health, among others, ended with a compromise.

Previously, providers could test patients only with written consent. This bill, which will now make its way to the Illinois Senate, requires verbal consent prior to testing, and still provides patients with the tools needed to make an informed decision, such as pre-test information. Patients also still have the right to refuse a test, and the sanctions for violating the act have doubled.

The decades-old law required written consent due to the stigma against the disease being so great. But the thought of eliminating consent and pre-test information altogether had many groups worried, particularly when the stigma remains. After all, AFC's John Peller said, 'We can't test our way out of this epidemic.'

Ann Hilton Fisher of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago is glad an agreement was reached—a compromise she feels is a very strong continued emphasis on prevention and informed testing. 'We know HIV stigma is real and discrimination against those with HIV is real,' Fisher said. 'People should test when they are ready to test.'

Although much has changed in the past 20 years since the original law was made, including medical treatment for the disease, these groups feel that people still need to know when they are being tested. Patients' rights, they say, are just as crucial today as they were back then.

In September 2006, the Centers for Disease Control ( CDC ) recommended that HIV testing become more routine, and also recommended not requiring pre-test counseling and separate written consent. Fisher jokes that the CDC was making HIV testing sound like a routine 'cholesterol test,' without considering the ramifications of being tested without that crucial information a patient might need prior to testing.

'We believe individuals still need to understand the process, the risks, the information,' Peller said. 'It's important to get correct and accurate information about HIV,' he continued, adding that this is particularly necessary when so much misinformation about the disease is still around, even today.

Eric Nelson, interim executive director of Better Existence with HIV ( BEHIV ) , believes that testing without information and consent would be disastrous. 'What happens if you are in the emergency room and the nurse comes up to you and says, 'By the way, you're positive for HIV. You're free to go now.'' Nelson is hopeful the Senate will pass the legislation, and said Illinoisans are lucky that the state legislature and governor understand HIV, and are willing to pick up where the federal government has dropped the ball in terms of funding for prevention, testing and housing.

AFC believes the compromise in wording will be a step forward to expanding HIV testing in medical settings, such as emergency rooms.

'This will make big strides in those undiagnosed Illinoisans.' Peller said.

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