MDCH reverses position on HIV documents

By |2011-02-03T09:00:00-05:00February 3rd, 2011|Uncategorized|

The Michigan Department of Community Health announced Feb. 10 it will advise local health departments to change a controversial “client acknowledgment form.”

The forms have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism since Michigan Messenger reported on them Feb. 7. Attorneys, experts and authorities on HIV disclosure and disability issues have said the documents are “concerning” and likely “illegal.” Civil rights officials announced they were looking at the documents for possible discrimination issues on Wednesday.

“We believe advocates have raised some valid points. As such, we will be advising local health departments that if they are going to use client acknowledgment forms to advise (HIV-positive) clients of Michigan law – and there is nothing saying they must use such forms – they need to quote the law,” said Kelly Niebel, MDCH spokesperson, in an e-mail statement to Michigan Messenger.

At issue are documents called “client acknowledgment forms” that are meant to explain to newly diagnosed HIV-positive people Michigan’s disclosure law. But experts say those forms distort the legal requirements on HIV-positive people.

Under Michigan law, when a person tests positive for HIV, health officials are required to meet with them and do two things. First, they are expected to offer assistance in contacting sexual and needle-sharing partners.

Secondly, officials are expected to inform the newly diagnosed person that under Michigan law, they are legally obligated to disclose their HIV-positive status prior to sexual relations. Failure to do so is a felony.

The “client acknowledgement forms,” used by some local health departments, were obtained through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. The documents go beyond the law by requiring people infected with HIV to engage in only protected sex. The document implies that failing to do so is a crime.

Also included in the documents in the FOIA request is a legal opinion from an MDCH lawyer who supports claims that it is illegal for a person who is HIV-positive to engage in unprotected sex. The lawyer, Denise Chrysler, says the state’s Public Health Act and the specific Health Threat to Others section of it, allow officials to declare unprotected sex for HIV-positive people illegal.

“(Chrysler’s) opinion was not intended to be formal legal advice to any health department, including Macomb County, nor was it intended to present a legal position or interpretation of the department,” said Niebel, MDCH spokesperson.

Equality Michigan, an advocacy and education group dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, praised the announcement from the MDCH.

“The Michigan Department of Community Health should be applauded for recognizing an injustice and promptly addressing it. To do so takes courage and wisdom. Too often government digs its heels in and refuses to admit fault or change paths,” said Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan. “Equality depends on the kind of responsibility MDCH exhibited today. Even with this victory, Equality Michigan encourages individuals affected by the inaccuracies of current and past county health disclosure forms to come forward and report any wrongs that may now be righted.”

Equality Michigan called for investigations by state and federal civil rights authorities Tuesday night, and Wednesday announced it was filing formal complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights over the use of the documents. Dievendorf said the group intends to file the complaints in spite of the MDCH statement.

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