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Lawmakers in both chambers push to change state HIV laws

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A bipartisan trio of legislators from both chambers of the General Assembly have teamed up to tackle “HIV decriminalization with similar bills. 

Missouri statute mandates an individual who is knowingly infected with HIV not act in a “reckless” way that could expose another person to the disease without his or her knowledge or consent. Violating the statute could result in a Class A or B felony, depending on if another individual contracted HIV. 

The way the statute is written deters people from finding out his or her status and seeking treatment, advocates have said. 

Sen. Kiki Curls and Reps. Tracy McCreery and Holly Rehder joined forces Wednesday in announcing the introduction of three similar bills among them that would change state statute to promote treatment, reduce the stigma, and ultimately “decriminalize” HIV. 

All three seek to change state law to focus more on intent. And the legislation would change the wording to address a broader “communicable diseases,” rather than just HIV. The bills also include safeguards to protect an individual’s identity 

In an interview with The Missouri Times, McCreery pointed to the different backgrounds of all three lawmakers: McCreery is a Democrat from the St. Louis area, Curls is a Democrat representing parts of Kansas City, and Rehder is a Republican from rural southeastern Missouri. And yet, they all agree “criminalizing HIV is bad for public health” in Missouri, she said. 

Although similar, the differences in the bills from McCreery and Rehder stem from the punishment individuals can face for exposing someone to an infectious or communicable disease; Rehder’s bill includes harsher penalties.

Here’s a look at what the lawmakers are proposing: 

McCreery: McCreery’s HB 1692, pre-filed Wednesday, is largely similar to last year’s legislation. It places an emphasis on “intent” for prosecution to occur, she said. It also downgrades the punishment to a misdemeanor from a felony. 

Curls: Sen. Kiki Curls’ legislation is textually identical to McCreery’s. 

“The legislation will be about enacting smart policy,” she said in a statement. “The mistake our state made in enacting HIV-specific codes, attaching felony-level penalties for failure to disclose and imposing sentences as long as manslaughter, must be righted.” 

Rehder: Rehder’s HB 1691, also pre-filed Wednesday, largely mirrors what she championed last session. Her bill adds protections for individuals who act in a “reckless manner.”

Her bill brings the penalty down to a Class C or D felony if someone knowingly exposes another to an infectious or communicable disease, depending on if the other person contracted the disease. Acting in a “reckless manner” would just be a misdemeanor offense.

“My main goal is to encourage testing, shine the light on this, and let people know [HIV] truly is a manageable disease,” Rehder told The Missouri Times. “And this affects us all. This is not some problem that none of us are going to be touched by.”

“Let’s not keep our head in the sand. It’s an issue affecting Missourians that the whole body can get behind, and we can fix it,” she added.

Rehder also pointed to the impact these bills could have on victims of domestic violence who are trapped in abusive relationships and worried a partner could tell others he or she is HIV-positive.

“Having a virus or disease should not be a crime, and people living with HIV should not be singled out and criminalized. It is time for our laws to reflect modern science and support people living with HIV in receiving the same standard of care, compassion, and fairness under the law as those living with any other condition,” the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, staffed by Empower Missouri, said in a letter of support for the bills. 

Last year, McCreery’s bill was held up in a House committee; Rehder’s stalled on the House floor. 

More than 12,000 people in Missouri are living with HIV, according to data from AIDSVu, a product of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Caldwell, Jackson, and Mississippi Counties reported the most number of cases per 100,000 people in 2016.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) designated Missouri as one of seven states with a “substantial rural burden” for people living with HIV. Within the state, the nation’s health protection agency flagged more than a dozen counties considered vulnerable or at-risk for outbreaks.

Next Steps: ‘Decriminalizing’ HIV in Missouri

This story has been updated.