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On World AIDS Day, an HIV+ Man Sues Doctor and Medical Group for Discrimination After Refusing to Provide Treatment

Tue, 12/01/2020 - 11:01
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The Lawsuit Raises Serious Concerns About Medical Treatment Available to Patients with Pre-existing Conditions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Justice

Los Angeles, CA -- An HIV positive man filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court to coincide with World AIDS Day against a surgeon and medical group for refusing to treat him because of his HIV status.   

Download the lawsuit here: https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/sites/default/files/2020-11/SmithvPate…

Today is World AIDS Day, an annual event since 1988 to support those living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.

Despite exceptional advancement in medical treatments, HIV remains one of the most stigmatized diseases in our country’s history, and many patients still live in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic.

Justin Smith of Los Angeles, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been HIV positive for 34 years.  This lawsuit is the first time Mr. Smith has publicly revealed his HIV status. 

“Like many long-term survivors, I lost numerous friends and a partner to AIDS. This lawsuit is about the very real stigma people with HIV carry to this day, and my personal experiences being confronted with it. It is about how I lived with this stigma over 30 years. I kept my HIV status a secret from anyone that did not have to know, even my family,” said Justin Smith. “Everyone deserves healthcare care without judgment. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. To be understood, and not marginalized. I hope this lawsuit helps get us there.”

Mr. Smith is represented by attorneys for Consumer Watchdog and Theresa J. Barta of Barta Law.

The story is also a cautionary tale for all patients with pre-existing medical conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under federal and state anti-discrimination law, doctors must conduct individualized assessments to determine if patients are healthy enough for medical treatment. For example, conditions like diabetes, depression, an intellectual disability, or a physical handicap cannot be the sole basis for denying care. Yet there have been significant reports of doctors refusing care on the basis of patients’ pre-existing medical conditions.  

According to the lawsuit, when Mr. Smith sought hip replacement surgery in May 2020, Dr. Jay Patel of the Orthopedic Specialty Institute Medical Group of Orange County refused to perform the surgery on the basis of Mr. Smith’s HIV status—reflecting and perpetuating stigma based on outdated perceptions of the disease and transmission risks of people living with HIV.  

Dr. Patel refused to treat Mr. Smith because he posed a “risk” to “the staff” due to his HIV status, according to the lawsuit. This antiquated mentality ignores that by taking universal precautions that are applied to all patients, there is practically no risk of transmitting HIV infection in a medical or surgical setting.

The doctor excused the refusal to treat Mr. Smith because he claimed Mr. Smith was “immunocompromised,” which is untrue. People living with HIV are commonly prescribed what are known as antiretroviral therapies (ART), which allow people living with HIV to lead full and healthy lives. With adherence to HIV medication regimes, most people living with HIV have no symptoms or significant effects on their immune systems.

As noted in the lawsuit:

“Many with HIV live in fear and anxiety of being discriminated against and stigmatized once their HIV status is disclosed. Mr. Smith compares the psychological weight as comparable to the burden of being forced to wear a scarlet letter or a Yellow Star during the Nazi Era. That is, individuals live in fear that they will be dehumanized and isolated once this badge is revealed to others.”

According to the lawsuit, the doctor’s actions violate the Affordable Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, all of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. 

As noted in the lawsuit:

“If anywhere a person with living with HIV can seek respite from the crushing weight of stigma is in the presence of medical professionals whose training should elevate their understanding of the disease. Yet Dr. Patel played into the stigma in every possible way, causing even greater anguish by stripping back the safety of the doctor’s office. Dr. Patel’s lack of compassion and blatantly hostile and discriminatory treatment is unacceptable.”

Mr. Smith seeks damages and “public injunctive relief” on behalf of the general public to ensure that no other people living with HIV or other disabling health conditions experience discrimination when seeking medical care. 

The case was filed in the in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana.

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Consumer Watchdog is a nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization. Visit us on the web at: http://www.ConsumerWatchdog.org

Theresa J. Barta is a staunch patient advocate and specializes in litigation involving physicians. Visit us on the web at: https://www.barta-law.com/