The federal government is investigating whether a Delaware hospital violated the civil rights of a vacationing District man when one of its doctors refused to treat him because he feared the man had AIDS.
The Department of Health and Human Services began an inquiry this week after reading press reports of the June 28 incident at Beebe Hospital, a community facility about six miles from Rehoboth Beach, Del., said Thomas Jefferson Jr., special assistant to the director of the agency's civil rights office. A ruling is expected in 15 to 30 days, he said.
Jefferson said HHS is investigating whether Robert Spicer, an orthopedic surgeon in private practice who routinely works at Beebe, violated federal laws barring discrimination against handicapped people when he refused to perform surgery on Rod Miller, 38, who went to the hospital's emergency room after he cut his foot on a rock at the beach.
According to Miller, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, Spicer told him that he would not perform the operation unless Miller could prove that he did not have acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Miller said that although he told the doctor that he did not have AIDS, Spicer had him transferred by helicopter to George Washington University Hospital in the District.
"It appeared to be a very abnormal situation," Jefferson said. "When you go into a facility you expect to be treated, or if you're transferred you expect there to be a very good reason."
In March, the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that the 1973 law banning discrimination against the handicapped by employers, schools and others receiving federal funds applied to those who either have or are suspected of having contagious diseases, including AIDS. Jefferson said the hospital would have to comply with the law because it receives federal funds for treating patients receiving Medicaid.
Spicer has referred all questions about the incident to a hospital spokesman. But in an interview with The Whale, a Rehoboth Beach newspaper, Spicer said he questioned Miller about whether he had AIDS after "observing him and his friends." After he was unable to get the information he sought, Spicer said, he indicated he believed a bigger hospital would be better equipped to handle patients suspected of carrying the AIDS virus.
In the interview, Spicer also said he believed Miller would receive better treatment by seeing a doctor in his hometown.
Jefferson said he did not know what relief Miller might get if the agency's investigation determined that the hospital's actions were wrong. However, under such a finding, if the hospital refused to take steps to make sure such an incident does not happen again, the federal government could cut off any future funds, Jefferson said. He added that his office would probably work out a compliance and monitoring plan with the hospital before taking such an extreme measure.
Mauro Montoya, legal director for AIDS programs at the Whitman Walker Clinic, where Miller has been seeking legal advice, said yesterday that he was pleased by the department's involvement in the case.
"That they were motivated to get involved just by reading about it in the newspaper speaks to the fact that something happened that was very wrong," he said.
Susan Peterson, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said last week that the hospital has treated patients with AIDS. Beebe's board of directors, medical staff and administration are expected to make an announcement today based on their investigation of the incident, she said.
The American Medical Association says doctors have the right to refuse treatment to any patient, but also tells members that they can handle AIDS cases without posing any risk to themselves. The Centers for Disease Control states that doctors, police officers and others who might come into contact with AIDS carriers can protect themselves from the risk of infection by wearing rubber gloves and other protective gear.