Suburban Hospital in Bethesda has turned away a Montgomery County AIDS support group that asked to hold a volunteer training session at the facility, citing "public anxiety" over the disease and "the potential for misunderstanding" about the gathering.
Leaders of the Health Education Resource Organization, which conducts educational and support services related to the fatal acquired immune deficiency syndrome, said they told the hospital the session might feature a panel discussion that included one or two AIDS patients.
A hospital spokeswoman said Suburban treats patients with AIDS, but hospital officials said in a written statement they were concerned about the meeting because "the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the nature of the event was simply too great to risk subjecting our patients and hospital visitors to concern for their health and well-being."
The organization's leaders said their request also was turned down by a dozen churches in the county. Six other churches quoted rental fees the group could not afford, they said.
Eventually, they accepted an offer from the county health department to use the auditorium of the County Executive Office Building in Rockville.
The session is scheduled for Saturday.
"I was very shocked and disappointed" at being turned away by the hospital, said Peter Laqueur, Maryland executive director of the AIDS organization. " . . . If they're going to be afraid, imagine how the public is going to be."
Laqueur said the group, which has provided services under contract with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has not been turned down in its requests for meeting space elsewhere in the state.
"We were not questioning the value of the work," said Suburban Hospital spokeswoman Beth Veihmeyer. But she said officials there would not comment beyond a prepared statement, which read, in part:
"In light of the public anxiety and confusion concerning AIDS, we felt that the hospital setting was inappropriate . . . .
"This is a matter of perception, and one that cannot be discounted in the minds of the public we serve."
The 375-bed private hospital was opened in 1943 and offers a range of educational programs, including seminars on aging and alcoholism, and other services such as day care for the elderly and alcohol and drug rehabilitation.
The health resource organization was formed in 1983 and has become established statewide, providing education and counseling services to medical workers, patients with AIDS and AIDS-related conditions.
A Montgomery County chapter was formed this year, said David Brumbach, because of the rising number of AIDS cases in the county.
The figures were not available from state or county health officials, but Brumbach said 31 cases have been reported in Montgomery, 21 since January.
"The AIDS crisis is bigger than the Suburban Hospital corporate policy," he said. "It's only a matter of time before they have to reverse that and ask us and other groups for help. They will have to have a more compassionate corporate policy."