HIV/AIDS has been unlike any other public health issue of our time. The epidemic began in a cloud a fear because, at first, no one knew how it was spread. When it became clear that HIV was infectious, and that it was potentially fatal, there was no treatment. This led to widespread stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
In response, public health officials worked tirelessly to provide the general public with accurate information about how HIV was, and was not, transmitted, and how people could protect themselves. Public health officials realized that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS was getting in the way of testing and prevention efforts and keeping people from getting healthcare.
Despite the best efforts of public health officials, medical professionals, HIV/AIDS advocates, and people living with HIV/AIDS, HIV-related discrimination continued. People living with HIV/AIDS—and even some people who were merely rumored to have HIV—were fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied access to medical care and social services based on their HIV status.
After years of widespread discrimination, Congress passed a series of Federal laws to protect people living with HIV/AIDS from discrimination based on their HIV status and to give them the same legal protections as any other person with a medical disability.
One of the first legal protections was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It expanded the reach of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and made discrimination on the basis of disability unlawful. In the first Supreme Court case involving HIV/AIDS discrimination (Bragdon v. Abbot), the Court ruled that Congress intended HIV infection to be included as a disability under the ADA. HIV infection has been found to meet the definition of disability under Federal and state laws protecting the disabled from all forms of discrimination. For more information on the ADA and how it may affect you, see CDC’s Business Responds to AIDS and Labor Responds to AIDS: HIV & the Law—ADA.
A few years later, Congress enacted another important legal protection, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). HIPAA is designed to protect the privacy of patients’ medical records and other health information. It also provides patients with access to their medical records and with significant control over how their personal health information is used and disclosed. HIPAA has proven to be very effective in preventing discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS by preventing others from knowing their HIV status.
People with HIV/AIDS who believe that their health information privacy rights have been violated may be eligible to file a complaint. For information about your privacy protections, see the Office for Civil Rights’ Health Information Privacy.
Fact Sheets & Print Materials
- Office for Civil Rights - Fact Sheet: Your Rights as a Person with HIV Infection or AIDS
- Office for Civil Rights - Your Rights Under Section 504 and the Americans With Disabilities Act
- Office for Civil Rights - Your Health Information and Privacy Rights
- Office for Civil Rights - Privacy and Your Health Information
- Office for Civil Rights - Health Information Privacy Complaint Form Package
- Office for Civil Rights - Información sobre su salud: Derecho a la confidencialidad
- Office for Civil Rights - Queja Por Violación a La Privacidad de la Información Médica
Related Topics on AIDS.gov
Frequently Asked Questions
Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit housing discrimination?
Housing discrimination is not covered by the ADA. However, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which is primarily enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), prohibits housing discrimination against people with disabilities, including those living with HIV/AIDS. For more information, see HUD’s Housing Discrimination Complaints.
Can my insurance company drop me now that I have been diagnosed with HIV?
There are no simple answers to that question. You do have some protections. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) helps people with HIV/AIDS get and keep their health insurance. HIPAA provides several protections important to people with HIV/AIDS:
- It limits (but doesn’t eliminate) the ability of insurance companies to exclude you from coverage if you have a pre-existing condition.
- If you have a family member who has had health problems in the past, or is having them now, HIPAA keeps group health plans from denying you coverage or charging additional fees for coverage because of your family member’s health.
- It guarantees certain small business employers (and certain individuals who lose job-related coverage) the right to purchase individual health insurance.
- HIPAA guarantees, in most cases, that employers or individuals who purchase health insurance can renew the coverage, regardless of any health conditions of individuals covered under the insurance policy.
Regardless of your health status, it's important to understand your health insurance so that, if you get sick, you know what to expect.
For more information, see CDC’s HIV and the Law: HIPAA.
- Office for Civil Rights - How to File a Civil Rights Complaint
- DOJ - Fighting Discrimination Against People with HIV/AIDS
- DOJ - Filing an HIV/AIDS Discrimination Complaint
- DOJ - Protecting the Rights of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) - The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program: Policy Notices
HRSA’s HIV/AIDS Bureau administers the Ryan White Program, which provides healthcare for low-income people with HIV disease through grants to state and local service providers. HRSA grantees deliver care to over half a million people who are living with HIV/AIDS each year.
- Office for Civil Rights (OCR) - HIV/AIDS
OCR ensures that people have equal access to, and an opportunity to receive services from, all HHS programs. People who believe they have been discriminated against—on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion or disability (including HIV/AIDS)—in healthcare or human services may be eligible to file a complaint with OCR.
Last revised: 02/09/2012