Nat Hentoff's column on routine AIDS testing {"The Assault on Routine AIDS Testing," op-ed, June 28} includes an unsupported statement as a basis for his argument in favor of such testing.

Mr. Hentoff states that "through tracing the {AIDS} patient's sexual contacts, those lives can often be saved." While this may prove true for current partners of an infected person who have not yet become infected by that person, it is not true for others who may already have been infected. For these individuals, tracing offers no hope for saving their lives, since there is now no cure for the disease.

What this diagnostic data can offer the individual so informed is severe anxiety and the potential for emotional and functional destabilization. For society as a whole, this might indeed be an acceptable price to pay if we simultaneously offered information and counseling regarding a) AIDS prevention; and b) coping with the knowledge of HIV positive antibody status. Regrettably, it is not the policy of the administration either to provide this type of information or to assist others in their efforts to do so. In this regard, the June 29 Associated Press story titled "U.S. Rules Out Condoms for Inmates" speaks, cynically, for itself.

The test for HIV infection is an example of how medicine's ability to diagnose at times outpaces its ability to utilize diagnostic information effectively. At the moment, the HIV antibody test appears to be of much greater use politically than medically. Our most effective medical weapon against AIDS is prevention, at times undertaken in conjunction with testing.

For far too long, we have abdicated leadership on this matter to the politicians. By tail-chasing on issues such as testing, we continue to divert limited resources from prevention and allow misguided policies to flourish. It is time for the experts, the health-care community and those who assist AIDS victims, to drive AIDS policy. Only under such circumstances can a sane debate occur over the merits of HIV testing. DENNIS J. BARBOUR Executive Director Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine Washington