An HIV-positive Los Angeles man filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court Tuesday — World AIDS Day — alleging a surgeon and medical group refused to treat him because of his HIV status.
Justin Smith alleges that when he sought hip replacement surgery in May, Dr. Jay Patel of the Orthopaedic Specialty Institute Medical Group of Orange County refused to perform the surgery on the basis of the plaintiff’s HIV diagnosis — reflecting and perpetuating stigma based on outdated perceptions of the disease and transmission risks, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Santa Ana federal court.
A message sent to Patel seeking comment was not immediately answered.
According to the suit, Patel refused to treat Smith because he posed a “risk” due to his HIV status.
“This antiquated mentality ignores that by taking universal precautions that are applied to all patients, there is practically no risk of transmitting HIV infection in a medical or surgical setting,” Smith’s attorneys said in a press release.
Smith, 55, has been HIV positive for 34 years.
“Like many long-term survivors, I lost numerous friends and a partner to AIDS,” Smith said. “This lawsuit is about the very real stigma people with HIV carry to this day, and my personal experiences being confronted with it. It is about how I lived with this stigma over 30 years. I kept my HIV status a secret from anyone that did not have to know, even my family.”
The lawsuit was filed on World AIDS Day, an annual event since 1988 to support those living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.
“Everyone deserves health care without judgment,” Smith said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. To be understood, and not marginalized. I hope this lawsuit helps get us there.”
Under federal and state anti-discrimination law, doctors must conduct individualized assessments to determine if patients are healthy enough for medical treatment. The lawsuit contends that Patel allegedly refused to treat Smith because he claimed Smith was “immunocompromised.”
People living with HIV are commonly prescribed what are known as antiretroviral therapies; with adherence to HIV medication regimes, most people living with HIV have no symptoms or significant effects on their immune systems.
According to the lawsuit, the doctor’s alleged actions violate the Affordable Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, all of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.
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