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New Mass. Law to Allow Verbal Consent for HIV Tests

by Dan Meyer
Contributor
Wednesday May 2, 2012
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Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick on April 26 signed a bill that abolished the need for written consent to an HIV test.

The measure, named "An Act to Increase Routine Screening of HIV," states that doctors will only need verbal consent from patients before they test them for the virus.

Barrett Klein, director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders’ AIDS Law Project, along with AIDS Action Committee President Rebecca Haag praised Senate President Therese Murray, state Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) and state Reps. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) and Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) and Patrick for their support of the bill.

"We hope to see an increase in testing and treatment now," said Klein in a press release. "We hope now, with the removal of the written consent requirement, the medical profession will step up and get the job done by offering an HIV test to all patients as public health authorities recommend."

While not a perfect solution, Haag told EDGE that the law is certainly a step in the right direction in the fight against AIDS in the commonwealth.

"This is significant progress," she said. "It’s a statement that resonates deeply with the LGBT community which usually defines their triumphs in the fight for equality through progress rather than instant success."

Haag stressed that the stigma surrounding HIV screenings that still exists in Massachusetts is fostered by, among other things, the extensive paperwork that doctors must fill out due to the written consent law. Some of these documents are as long as three pages.

"We are hopeful that since many physicians thought [written consent] was a barrier, we will see a rise in testing," said Haag. "We’ll see more doctors be willing to do the test. It gets rid of a lot of administrative processes, which gives more time for physicians to talk to their clients."

Confidentiality has always been an additional source of contention. HIV/AIDS service providers said that the new law will allow them to develop a better relationship with their clients because they won’t have to spend so much time on paperwork.

While it is unclear exactly when the bill will go into effect, Haag said people should start spreading the word. She added that the stigma will disappear as more and more medical experts talk with clients or patients about HIV/AIDS, how they can contract the virus and what treatments are available if they test positive.

Massachusetts and Nebraska had been the only two states that required patients to sign a waiver before they took an HIV test before Patrick signed the verbal consent bill into law.

While it may seem a bit strange for a progressive state like Massachusetts to appear behind in HIV testing, Haag explained that many never required written consent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines that stressed verbal consent is better than written approval. States without laws that governed HIV testing instantly adopted these recommendations.

In spite of the previous law, Klein stressed that the commonwealth has made significant strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This progress specifically includes "robust confidentiality protections" that he said ensured the privacy of those with the virus.

Murray told the Boston Globe in March that the law will increase HIV testing because "it makes it normal."

"It will be like getting your cholesterol checked when you get your annual physical," she said.

The CDC estimates that there are roughly 25,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts, but 21 percent of them remain unaware of their status. The number of new infections in the state has dropped 52 percent since 1999. AIDS Action Committee estimates that this decline will save the commonwealth $2 billion in health care-related costs.

"We ask anyone who is sexually active to please ask their doctors to do the test," said Haag. "Patients also need to take charge of their own wellness. If your physician doesn’t ask you, you should ask. It is nothing to be ashamed of; it could save your life."

Dan Meyer is a young professional whose stories have appeared in publications such as The Advocate online and UCLA’s LGBT magazine entitled "OutWrite." He is also a part-time ESL teacher in Boston.

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