A divided Kentucky supreme court ruled Thursday that disclosure required by a workers compensation claim filed by an HIV-positive employee trumps privacy considerations. Steven Barnett told very few people he had tested positive for HIV. But when he was bitten by a cat during his job as a veterinary assistant and sought medical treatment, his personal life became a rather public issue. Because he was bitten during his work, he sought workers compensation coverage, according to court documents. The doctor who was treating Barnett for the effects of the animal bite was unsure about the potential conflict with antibiotic treatment the patient was receiving for his HIV condition.
Julio Melo, an infectious disease specialist who treated HIV patients, was consulted about coordinating the two antibiotic treatments. When Barnett was hospitalized, he signed a form that consented to treatment and financial responsibility. Melo disclosed Barnett's infection to his employer because of the workers compensation claim. Barnett later quit his job claiming the office environment had become "uncomfortable" after the disclosure, the court said. Barnett sued Melo for privacy violations.
While state law protects patient privacy, the workers compensation laws require disclosure to an employer who has financial responsibility for an employee injury, the court said. "By seeking benefits under the act, Barnett placed his medical condition in issue," Justice William Graves wrote in the 4-3 decision. "Since the employer was required by law to pay the work-related medical bills, the very same law gave the employer the right to know the pertinent medical information."
Barnett was supported in his case by several AIDS support organizations. Justice Will Scott, writing the dissent for two other justices, said Melo did not have to disclose Barnett's HIV status in order to comply with workers compensation disclosure rules. (AP)