Arguments scheduled in HIV-privacy case
by Timothy Cwiek
Dec 26, 2013 | 1076 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacob P. Fyda says he’s determined to bring public accountability to the process of distributing millions of HIV/AIDS dollars in the nine-county region.

To help accomplish that goal, Fyda, 26, seeks the names of the 12 members who serve on the city’s Resource Allocations Advisory Committee.

The committee reviews funding proposals from dozens of agencies each year and makes recommendations to city Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz on the distribution of millions of HIV/AIDS dollars.

But half of the committee members must be HIV-positive, and the city refuses to divulge the name of any committee members, citing privacy laws and other measures.

Fyda said he doesn’t want to “out” the HIV-positive members on the committee. But he also said the city’s AIDS-allocations process must become more open and transparent if it’s to operate legally.

Fyda, a medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently filed a state Right-to-Know Law request for the names of the committee members.

The city denied the request, citing the state’s HIV Confidentiality Act, the state Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 and other measures.

But in May, Benjamin A. Lorah, an appeals officer for the state Office of Open Records, determined that those laws don’t prevent public access to the committee’s membership list.

“While both the HIV Act and the [Disease Prevention and Control Law] prevent the dissemination of an individual’s health information in the context of testing and dissemination within Health Authorities, these laws do not serve to prohibit access to the names of committee members serving on a public board whose members may or may not be HIV/AIDS-positive,” Lorah wrote.

Lorah ordered the city to release the names to Fyda, but the city is appealing in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Arguments on the dispute will be held 10 a.m. Jan. 9 in Courtroom 675 of City Hall. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker will preside.

In a 29-page legal brief, the city contends that release of the names would violate important privacy rights and potentially disrupt the orderly flow of millions of HIV/AIDS dollars in the nine-county region.

Fyda isn’t buying that argument.

He said the committee should be restructured in a way that avoids confidential membership, similar to other city advisory boards whose members are publicly known.

“Philadelphia has a rich history of backroom deals, and laws like the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law are intended to allow citizens to understand how their government works and thereby get accountability from their government,” Fyda said. “Years ago, the city created this committee with the purpose of deciding which HIV grants get funded. This allowed the city officials to deflect accountability onto a confidential committee.”

Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said the agency hasn’t taken a position on the dispute.

At the request of the city, Goldfein provided an affidavit verifying the prejudice and discrimination that people with HIV/AIDS face in society.

“[B]ecause of the misconceptions and stigma that continue to surround HIV and HIV transmission, discrimination against people with HIV persists to this day,” the affidavit states. “Consequently, individuals living with HIV still fear disclosure of their status because of the very real possibility that they will suffer negative repercussions and discrimination in their personal and professional lives.”

Fyda, a former HIV-prevention counselor, said he’s sensitive to the privacy needs of HIV-positive individuals.

“My hope is that [city officials] replace this committee with an open process by which grant applications are reviewed,” Fyda continued. “The only means I have of making this happen is to challenge the committee’s confidentiality. I have no interest in outing anyone on the committee. I would gladly withdraw my case if the committee was replaced with an open process.”

Fyda also said the public shouldn’t be excluded from the committee’s meetings.

“To get better AIDS services, we need to have better accountability. To have better accountability, the meetings where these funding recommendations are made need to be open to the public.”

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