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Kan. agency's promise ends dispute on AIDS measure

By JOHN HANNA

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA -- A promise from Kansas' health department Thursday to continue protecting AIDS and HIV patients from being quarantined has resolved a dispute over a legislative proposal for helping medical personnel and emergency workers who may have been exposed to infectious diseases.

State House and Senate negotiators agreed on the final version of a bill that still would repeal a 25-year-old law specifically banning state and local health officials from quarantining people with AIDS or the virus causing it. Both chambers voted to rescind the law, but the move faced strong criticism, including from the Kansas Equality Coalition, the state's leading gay rights group.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials said that even without a specific ban, state law prevents quarantines unless they are reasonable and medically necessary -- conditions that cannot be met for AIDS and HIV patients. The final version of the bill repeats those limits on quarantines, but critics had said such language wasn't enough to protect AIDS and HIV patients from potential discrimination.

Other provisions of the bill require KDHE to draft rules by the end of the year to ensure that medical personnel and emergency workers learn quickly whether they've been exposed to infectious diseases in treating patients or handling materials. State Epidemiologist Charlie Hunt pledged to legislators that the rules will spell out which diseases can lead to quarantines, and AIDS and HIV won't make the list.

The promise was enough for the Equality Coalition to accept the bill, though it would prefer to keep the ban on quarantining AIDS and HIV patients in state law. Legislators hoped to vote on the final version of the measure Friday, when approval in both chambers would send it to Gov. Sam Brownback.

"We're good," said Tom Witt, the Equality Coalition's executive director and lobbyist. "This alleviates our concerns."

KDHE officials and some legislators involved in the negotiations over the bill have been frustrated by the criticism of the measure.

The bill is designed to protect medical personnel, laboratory workers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and prison employees. Backers say a single set of statewide rules -- instead of a hodgepodge of local policies -- will make it easier for such personnel to learn whether they've been exposed to diseases and to get tested.

"The whole thing all along has been one big misunderstanding," said lead House negotiator David Crum, an Augusta Republican.

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. Hunt said in a statement the health department never intended to seek authority to quarantine AIDS or HIV because it would never be medically necessary.

And lead Senate negotiator Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, said the 1988 law banning quarantines of AIDS and HIV patients became unnecessary over time.

"It was understandable back in the 1980s, when many people were not educated on how HIV was transmitted, but today that's not the case," she said.

Witt said critics never believed state or local health officials contemplated mass quarantines of AIDS or HIV patients but simply wanted to lessen the potential for discrimination against them.

"Our concern is always about people in more remote areas of the state engaging in individual harassment," Witt said.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri still has concerns, and lobbyist Holly Weatherford said the group will address them when the state health department writes the rules. Weatherford said her group worries that the bill would allow state and local health officials to force people who come in contact with medical personnel or emergency workers to be tested in a broad set of circumstances.

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The bill is Sub for HB 2183.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna