Pendleton Senator Wants HIV Information Exchange for Prison Guards at Risk

SB 367 allows prison doctors to disclose information about an inmate’s HIV or Hepatitis status if a correctional officer has been exposed to bodily fluids. A separate bill requires health insurers to continue coverage for children booked in juvenile hall.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, has introduced two bills that are designed to improve public policy at the intersection of healthcare and corrections, allowing the physicians of prison guards to get information about HIV exposure and closing a loophole to require health insurers to cover medical costs for juveniles held on bail.

Corrections officers are routinely put in harm’s way, breaking up fights and facing altercations with inmates, which can result in bodily fluids passing from the convict to the officer.

Because of the relatively high rates of hepatitis and HIV in the prison population, guards are often forced to take a powerful prophylactic cocktail that cleanses their system of any potential viruses but leaves them very ill. Senate Bill 367 allows the exchange of limited medical data from the prison doctor to the guard’s physician to determine whether the officer may have been exposed to any communicable diseases.

The disclosure should be permissible under federal privacy laws because it is limited to an exchange between healthcare professionals.

“Our correctional officers serve all of us in an often hostile environment,” Hansell said. Correctional jobs also provide an economic backbone for Hansell’s very rural Eastern Oregon district, which includes two prisons.

The prophylactic cocktail is often taken as a precaution, without any knowledge of the inmate’s HIV status or hepatitis infection, because an inmate can withhold that information.

“I can’t tell you how many times staff members have been exposed to bodily fluids,” said Bryan Branstetter, a Pendleton corrections officer and AFSCME representative. “The people who take this cocktail often get very sick.”

Roger Ware, another corrections officer, said inmates will use their bodily fluids as weapons against guards, dousing them with their fluids. Ware said that until officers taking the cocktail can be assured that they did not contract a virus, they often must limit contact with their spouses and children.

After the hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, signed on as co-sponsors and said they plan to introduce an additional measure to provide the same protection to county jail employees and law enforcement officers who are exposed to fluids.

BJ Cavnor, an activist for HIV patient rights, spoke somewhat critically of the bill, as it appeared to sensationalize the risk of AIDS exposure and death from the disease.

“If inmates are on their appropriate medication, their virus would not be transmittable,” he said, referring to anti-viral drugs that allow people with HIV to manage the disease and keep their viral load down to undetectable levels.

Steiner Hayward, a family physician, acknowledged Cavnor’s concerns but said being open about HIV status has also helped reduce the stigma for people carrying the virus.

Senate Bill 368

Senate Bill 368 simply extends to juveniles the consumer protections that the Legislature imposed on health insurance companies when their adult members are jailed but not convicted of a crime.

In 2014, the Association of Oregon Counties lobbied for passage of a bill that requires private health insurers to maintain coverage for paying customers who are in jail awaiting trial. The policy was designed to help local governments save on escalating healthcare costs if someone in their custody already has insurance.

However, Hansell said, the bill inadvertently left out juveniles covered by their parents’ insurance. Just under half of Oregon’s children have Medicaid, which cannot be billed by jail healthcare providers. SB 368 will only apply to private insurance.

Bill Elferling, a Umatilla County commissioner, pointed out that the insurance companies have already collected a premium from these juveniles, but are effectively denying care if they’re housed in jail, even if the criminal charges are ultimately dismissed. Elferling said the county had been stuck with the costs of treating someone in custody who had been shot despite that juvenile already having insurance.

“They are innocent until proven guilty,” said Elferling. “No one refunds a premium while they are in jail.”

Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, agreed with Elferling’s point after Regence BlueCross BlueShield lobbyist Elizabeth Remley asked that the implementation date be delayed until next year.

“A Regence customer is a Regence customer,” Beyer said. “These are kids who are covered -- the fact that they’re in custody shouldn’t matter. I’m not sure the delay is necessary.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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