The Howard County Medical Society discriminated against a former county resident when it refused to refer him to a physician because he was infected with the AIDS virus, a human rights panel has ruled.

The Howard County Human Rights Commission's decision, which included a $1,376 award for "humiliation and mental anguish," follows an eight-day hearing pitting lawyers and students from a University of Maryland law school clinic against one of the state's most politically connected law firms.

"This sends a clear signal to physicians and other health-care professionals that they do have an obligation to treat HIV-positive patients," lawyer Deborah Weimer said, referring to the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

"Physicians are just unaccustomed to being told they must treat a particular patient," said Weimer, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Medical society officials have not yet decided whether to appeal the case, but one society member said he wished they would.

"Their decision infuriates me," said Allan T. Leffler, an Ellicott City physician who is a past president of the society. "I don't believe people with AIDS should be discriminated against. And I don't believe that we discriminated."

Society President Joyce Boyd, who also serves as the Howard County health officer, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The society has denied any discriminatory practices and said that several of its physicians treat patients with AIDS or those infected with the AIDS virus. The society, which has about 170 physician members, is part of the statewide professional physicians group.

The human rights panel ordered the medical society to stop discriminating and to adopt a policy specifically stating that it will not discriminate against those with handicaps, including infection with the AIDS virus. It also ordered the society to educate its members, volunteers and staff not to discriminate.

The complaint was filed by David Heikkila, an HIV-positive county resident, who called the society's referral service in August 1988 in search of a local physician to provide routine and emergency care. Johns Hopkins Hospital physicians were already providing his primary care, for his HIV infection.

But the society's secretary told Heikkila that "none of their physicians would accept an HIV-positive patient," according to the panel's findings.

When a lawyer from the Maryland Commission on Human Relations then called the referral service, the secretary again stated that no doctor in the society would treat someone with the AIDS virus.

When told about the state Human Relations Commission's call, the society's president at the time, Luke Terry, told the secretary to ask the agency for "substantiation in writing" that "Maryland law prohibited physicians from refusing to treat HIV-positive individuals."

The panel wrote in its 11-page decision that Terry's reaction "sufficiently implicates {the medical society} as an employer and . . . was sufficient to constitute acquiescence" in the secretary's conduct.

The panel found that the society had violated county laws prohibiting discrimination based on physical handicap and in public accommodations. The society had argued that HIV infection did not constitute a physical handicap and that the referral service -- operated over the phone, out of a private home -- was not a "public accommodation."

Heikkila, who had sought $50,000 in damages, maintained that the society's action left him without local medical care, traumatized him and eventually forced him to move out of the county.

However, the society's attorney, Linda Lamone, said, "I hope they appeal because they have a very good case."

Lamone took the case when she was with the Baltimore firm of Rifkin, Evans, Silver & Lamone, whose partners include a former circuit court judge and former top-ranking governor's aide. Lamone said the three-member rights panel misinterpreted the phone call and was too broad in its interpretation of the county's legal protections for people infected with the AIDS virus.

The case is the first AIDS discrimination complaint in the state to reach the hearing stage, Weimer and Lamone said.