Utah legislators, who want society safe from criminals, also want prisoners protected from each other, especially if a prisoner has AIDS.
Legislation addressing the issue will likely be initiated by members of the Health Interim Committee, who Wednesday passed a bill that would require the names of people who test positive for the AIDS virus be reported to health officials.Health officials - who already have the authority to provide for the detection, reporting, prevention and control of communicable diseases - oppose the bill. They maintain that mandatory reporting will deter likely carriers of the AIDS virus from being tested.
"We have not supported mandatory testing for HIV positivity because of the chilling effect it would have on voluntary testing if people knew the results were going to be reported," said Dr. Suzanne Dandoy, executive director of the Utah Department of Health.
Committee members Wednesday also discussed a draft bill that would restrict the Department of Corrections from housing a person who tests positively for the disease, with one who does not. The bill also calls for testing of all prisoners who reside in the prison or in a facility contracted by the prison, for at least six months.
"This is an urgent thing and we are putting the state at risk every day we don't move on this issue," said Sen. Winn L. Richards, D-Ogden.
Department of Correction officials agree.
But Lynn Lund, department inspector general, told legislators that the prison is in a "wait-and-hold" pattern, while they research the issues of testing, confidentiality and housing. Of particular concern to prison officials is the unreliability of the AIDS test and the expense of AIDS treatment.
Currently the prison is testing for AIDS on a voluntary basis. More than 120 prisoners, or 5-10 percent of the prison population, have been tested. Of those, nine have died from the disease. Two died in custody; one was given a hardship release to a nursing home. One patient's AIDS treatment cost 12 percent of the prison's medical budget before he died.
But the money issue doesn't concern legislators as much as the possibility that a homosexual prisoner, infected with the deadly virus, will transmit it to others.
Lund explained that the prison has a six-step predator classification program. "A Gary Bishop was a passive individual, not a predator-type person," he said. His point was that even though Bishop was a homosexual, he wouldn't have posed a danger to another adult prisoner even if Bishop had suffered from AIDS.
The committee voted to pursue the issue of AIDS at the prison at their next monthly meeting. Members Wednesday also passed an AIDS confidentiality bill.
The bill clarifies for the State Department of Health how information on AIDS patients can be released to protect the patients' privacy, while protecting the public's health.
Currently state law prohibits the state epidemiologist from releasing information about an AIDS patient to blood and organ banks. The new bill, if passed by the Legislature, would give him the authority to do so.