The central incident at dispute in a case before a Howard Country human rights panel concerns a phone call: A man infected with the AIDS virus charges that a secretary for the county medical society told him no physician in Howard County will treat anyone with the deadly disease.

But the central issue raised by the case, which has turned into legal battle, is whether county residents with AIDS are being denied medical care.

"These kinds of {AIDS rights} cases have been rather novel in the last few years in counties like Howard, but they're starting to pop up," said Marna MacLendon, attorney for the county's Office of Human Rights.

Howard's three-member Human Rights Commission met again last week to hear testimony in the case of David J. Heikkila, who was a Columbia resident in August 1988 when he called the Howard County Medical Society to ask for a referral to a local physician for routine and emergency care. He said he told the secretary who answered that he was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

Heikkila alleges that the secretary responded that none of the medical society's physicians would accept an HIV patient.

The county medical society disputes Heikkila's version of the phone call. According to attorneys for the society, the caller was told that the society does not keep records of what diseases each physician treats but was given the names of some doctors to try. The attorneys deny that the society discriminates against people infected with the AIDS virus.

Medical society officials say that 200 members include internists and general practitioners who treat people with AIDS. However, a medical society attorney declined to identify those physicians.

The Office of Human Rights found reasonable cause to believe Heikkila's claim and to refer his case to the county Human Rights Commission.

Key testimony was provided by Lee D. Hoshall, assistant general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Human Rights.

After Heikkila complained to Hoshall's office, Hoshall called the medical society. He has testified that the employee who spoke to Heikkila told him, "That's true, we don't have anyone who will treat HIV positive."

The legal question at issue is whether the medical society violated the county law prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of handicap, in this case HIV infection.

"It's a complicated case," said MacLendon, the Office of Human Rights' attorney. "There has been contention over whether or not HIV is a disability, whether or not the medical society is a public accommodation."

Elaine Patico, who directs AIDS program of Hospice Services of Howard County, said she has not noticed a problem with availability of medical services.

"But dental care has been a concern," Patico said. "People have had a hard time getting lists of dentists in the county who treat people with AIDS."

The commission has wide latitude to issue a cease and desist order, require payment of monetary damages or take other action. Heikkila seeks an apology from the society and monetary damages.

According to records going back to 1981, a total of 33 people have been diagnosed with having the AIDS virus while living in Howard County. That number, however, does not include people who moved into the county after being diagnosed with the virus. As of April 30, 23 Howard County people who had AIDS have died.

The county provides some basic AIDS services, such as free testing and confidential counseling, according to Anne Simmons, a county health educator.

Hospice Services also has an emergency fund available to people with AIDS who need help paying rent or hiring nurses' aides.

The hospice group also has one bed held for Howard County AIDS patients at Bon Secours Hospital, but there is a waiting list.

"We try to tide people over who are in between times: when they are no longer working but still not receiving disability or Social Security benefits," Patico said.