Testing more Floridians for HIV is the goal of a bill that passed its first committee today. The measure would allow doctors offer the test without the paperwork currently required.
The AIDS Institute is a national advocacy and research group based in Tampa. Executive Director Michael Ruppal traveled to the Capitol Monday.
“The next thing that we would really like to do is to require HIV testing as part of an annual visit. I mean, that would be ultimately our dream goal,” he says.
That dream will have to wait. But he says a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Saunders (D- Orlando) could take the state a step closer to HIV tests being offered at every doctor’s office. As Saunders told the House Health Quality Subcommittee Monday, more testing would most likely save lives—especially, he said, among Florida’s African-American, Hispanic and LGBT communities, which have the highest rates of HIV infection.
“As many of you may know, despite advances in treatment and public education, the rate of HIV infections in our state is on the rise,” he told the committee.
Saunders calls Florida an “epicenter” of the HIV epidemic, with the nation’s second-highest rate of new infections every year and 130,000 people already infected. But he says the ability to find out one’s status makes all the difference.
“It can add decades onto their life and it can keep them from passing or transmitting the HIV virus to someone else," he say. "Sometimes when you get onto antiretroviral drugs after you find out that you’re positive, you can actually get to the point where you’re not transmitting it.”
Saunders’ bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Cary Pigman (R-Sebring) is aimed at lifting the red-tape burden for doctors who offer the tests.
“When I do tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea I just tell the patient that I’m going to test them for chlamydia and gonorrhea and I do the test, so it’s very simple for me to do that,” says University of South Florida doctor Diane Straub. “But for me to do an HIV test on a young person, I have to do all this paperwork, the lab before they draw up the test has to do confirm that the paperwork’s done. It’s just a much bigger burden for testing.”
And she says HIV-testing laws also require her to read a privacy statement to patients and bring a witness in the room before the patient signs in agreement.
Straub says the CDC recommends universal HIV testing for people under age 25—and the current process not only puts a burden on doctors but also might make patients less likely to ask for tests.
“It is so stigmatizing for an HIV test to have to go through this process,” she says. “And I think that that time has passed. I think that it’s time that we start to really enforce the universal testing that the CDC recommends. “
The AIDS Institute’s Ruppal says more Florida doctors have recently started offering the tests after the CDC reclassified HIV exams as a high-priority test, which allowed more insurance plans to cover it. He says the consent process is one remaining snag keeping people from knowing their status and getting treatment if they need it.