The San Francisco regional manager of the Health and Human Services civil rights office has resigned to protest what he says are orders from Washington barring any help to AIDS victims complaining of discrimination by organizations that receive federal funds.
Hal Freeman, a 49-year-old homosexual who has headed the San Francisco office for two years, said he decided to quit his $64,000-a-year post even though he was only two years short of qualifying for 20-year federal pension benefits.
"I cannot remain and enforce a policy I don't agree with," he said in a telephone interview today after telling his staff of 40, some of whom were in tears, of his decision.
At issue is HHS' enforcement of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids discrimination against the handicapped by any recipient of federal funds.
Freeman said he hoped his action would help pressure the department's office of civil rights in Washington to withdraw orders that forbid regional staff to offer any advice to persons calling about AIDS discrimination, who, he says, clearly fall within HHS guidelines defining handicapped persons. He said his staff is not barred from processing complaints but that "we've also been told not to encourage anyone to file one." And Washington rejected the only complaint received as not meriting federal action.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on health and the environment, said that if Freeman's story is true, then "the agency has behaved disgracefully. We should not allow our laws and dignity to collapse in the face of this epidemic."
Freeman and Waxman contrasted the agency's reluctance concerning AIDS with its vigorous efforts to protect newborns with severe deformities under new "Baby Doe" regulations.
A spokesman for HHS in Washington said he knew little of the specifics of Freeman's allegations and had no immediate comment.
Freeman said he had been unable to persuade his boss, office of civil rights director Betty Lou Dotson, that she was misinterpreting federal law. He said she asked him to reconsider when he told her Thursday he planned to resign, but he had decided that only drastic action could bring real change.
Freeman said Dotson had refused to let staffers offer guidance on potential AIDS discrimination cases because "we have no track record on AIDS" as on other diseases, meaning that HHS had not yet determined that a victim of AIDS could be considered handicapped. Freeman points out that complainants with conditions as various as allergies, sprained ankles and even contagious diseases such as leprosy have in the past been found handicapped under the meaning of section 504.
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a breakdown of the body's ability to fight disease. It is usually spread by sexual contact or use of contaminated injection needles and so far has struck mostly homosexual men in this country. It has so far proved fatal in most cases, although many persons with the disease find they can continue to work for some period of time.
Freeman said he plans to open a practice as a clinical psychologist. Staff writer Spencer Rich contributed to this article.