BY Neal Broverman
February 23 2012 1:00 AM ET
Businessman Stan Cooper has been HIV-positive since the 1980s, and thanks to the federal government, the whole world knows it.
Cooper is embroiled in a lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court late last year. A recreational flier, he allowed his pilot's medical certificate to lapse after he tested positive for HIV in 1985. Years later, in 1994, Cooper reapplied for the certificate but, for fear of being disqualified, didn't mention his HIV, nor did he reveal it the four times he renewed his credentials. Cooper now admits he was wrong, but says what happened next was worse.
Operation Safe Pilot, a joint project launched in 2003 by the Department of Transportation and the Social Security Administration, cross-referenced the health records of Northern California pilots, uncovering disability benefits Cooper had received in 1995. When it was discovered that he had HIV, he was charged with three felonies. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor false statement charge, Cooper sued the federal government, citing the 1974 Privacy Act, which prohibits federal agencies from releasing records on any individual, under most circumstances, without the person's written consent.
The Supreme Court will decide whether Cooper deserves financial compensation for the illegal disclosure, which has caused him to spend $200,000 on legal fees, he says. Meanwhile, Cooper's HIV-positive status remains posted on a government website.
'They stole my privacy,' Cooper told NPR in late November, referring to the SSA and the DOT's Federal Aviation Administration.
Cooper's case isn't an anomaly. As part of a new project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is proposing sharing HIV-related information about individuals. The department already maintains a database of certain HIV-positive individuals and their sex partners, ostensibly for partner-notification services and potential studies. Should an HIV-positive person move to another city or state, department officials want to be able to share information on them, including their name, with the new jurisdiction. On top of that, the department hopes to keep information on the partners indefinitely. Currently, their names are deleted from the database one year after an investigation is closed.
There is also a proposal from the department to inform doctors if a patient is 'an ongoing public health risk' and to work more closely with the city's police to collaborate on 'cross-cutting issues of policing and public health.'
While a representative from the health department's press office says the proposals are still being weighed, some New York'based HIV groups are concerned, especially since 34 states criminalize certain HIV-related behavior, including not disclosing one's positive status before having sex.
The Gay Men's Health Crisis, for example, praised the city government for working to bring New York's HIV numbers down but expressed alarm at the idea of sharing information on people's sex lives. 'Many states have specific HIV criminalization laws,' Ace Robinson, GMHC's managing director of community health and research, public policy, and advocacy, said in a statement, 'and this information could be used to prosecute people living with HIV, for what is otherwise lawful activities, in a number of circumstances.'