De Facto Discrimination

Friday, September 26, 2008

IN LATE JULY, Congress ended a ban on HIV-positive foreigners visiting the United States or migrating here. Two months later, those with HIV/AIDS still can't enter the country. The holdup? Passage of the bill didn't remove the ban in practice. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) still has to decide whether to rewrite its rules to allow the admission of people with HIV/AIDS. The agency should act soon to end a de facto form of discrimination that puts the United States in the company of countries such as Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The repeal of the ban was part of the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, important legislation that triples the funding for programs that combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. President Bush's commitment to taking the fight against HIV/AIDS to Africa has earned the United States immeasurable goodwill abroad and is one of the hallmark achievements of his administration. But much of this goodwill is undone by the ban.

The ban arose in the late 1980s amid the hysteria and misinformation that surrounded HIV/AIDS. A few years later, HHS acknowledged that HIV/AIDS is not transmitted through casual contact and tried to loosen travel restrictions. But an AIDS scare prompted Congress to turn the ban into law. As a result, no major AIDS conference has been held in the United States in 15 years. Refugees, researchers and students with HIV/AIDS have been essentially prohibited from entering the country.

Supporters of the ban say that allowing HIV-positive people to visit the country or immigrate would increase health-care costs. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that lifting the ban would cost the United States nearly $83 million over the next 10 years. But the legislation would raise travel fees to cover the estimated costs.

Nearly 60 House Democrats, including Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent President Bush a letter last week urging him to "take swift action on the issue." A number of senators, including John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), have urged HHS to revise the rule. HHS officials have said that changing the rule is a "time-consuming process" but that they're working to revise it before the next administration takes office. We hope this isn't just rhetoric and that HHS acts soon.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company