Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) yesterday called people with AIDS "a danger" and said those suffering from the disease "brought it on themselves."
The 82-year-old former governor, well known for tossing out incendiary remarks, offered his candid views about AIDS after he was asked during an interview to explain comments he made during a public meeting last week. At the meeting, Schaefer asked the state's AIDS administrator why she doesn't establish a public registry to list the names of Maryland residents who have tested positive for the HIV virus.
The mention of an HIV registry, something Schaefer championed without success a decade ago, had prompted an angry response from health officials and activists who believe that it would discourage people from being tested and seeking care. During yesterday's interview, Schaefer tried to explain why he continued to push a proposal that the legislature defeated three times in the 1990s.
"As far as I'm concerned, people who have AIDS are a danger," the comptroller said. "They're a danger to spread AIDS. People should be able to know who has AIDS. It costs an awful lot of money to treat them."
"They bring it on themselves," Schaefer continued, saying risky behavior is the only way to get the disease. "They don't get it by sitting on the toilet seat. . . . A person who gives AIDS, who spreads AIDS, they're bad people. Everybody wants to be on the good side of everything. Well, I'm taking a stand."
His comments were decried by activists who had taken issue with the comptroller's registry idea.
"Oh, my Lord," said Dan Furmasky, executive director of Equality Maryland, which advocates for gay, bisexual and transgender residents. "That someone who holds his position could make such insensitive remarks and advocate such draconian policies and show such a complete level of ignorance, and yet feel that he is equipped to speak on the issue -- I'm just dumbfounded."
David Haltiwanger, director of clinical programs at a Baltimore public health clinic, said he had assumed that Schaefer was "merely ignorant" when he mentioned the registry idea at a Board of Public Works meeting last week.
"I guess I was giving him the benefit of the doubt," Haltiwanger said. "But now it seems he's done a good job of clarifying that his thinking was as hostile and ill-informed as his initial comments suggested."
Schaefer has been no stranger to controversy over the years, and he seemed to be well aware yesterday that he was about to spark a fresh one. For years, he interrupted the business of the Board of Public Works with tirades about then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), even using one of the three-member panel's meetings to help expose Glendening's extramarital affair.
In May, he was at it again, deriding a McDonald's restaurant clerk for not being able to speak English. The unsolicited commentary led Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to rush to his defense by declaring multiculturalism to be "bunk."
Criticism over those remarks led the comptroller's aides to hand out red bumper stickers proclaiming: "Schaefer: He says what you think."
Yesterday, Schaefer made no apologies for his position on AIDS, even though he knows it is not popular with advocates for patients. He dismissed as "propaganda" the suggestion that a registry would deter those with the illness from seeking treatment. "They don't want to die," he said.
His position, though, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing view among public health officials, who have rejected the idea that a registry would be in any way beneficial. In Maryland, as in most states, information collected about people who test positive for HIV is coded, so the patient's identity remains confidential. The state collects the names of people with AIDS, but that list is neither published nor publicly accessible.
"There are many reasons why it is not open to the public," said Naomi Tomoyasu, acting director of the Maryland AIDS Administration. "The most important is, we want to encourage people to come in and get tested and get care."
Tomoyasu said several studies have suggested that those with a high probability of carrying the disease will seek out testing only if they can remain anonymous. "Clearly that suggests that stigma is an issue," she said.