Breaking a last-minute logjam, Congress Thursday approved a compromise AIDS testing, research and education bill that had been blocked by one senator who objected to provisions guaranteeing the confidentiality of AIDS test results.
Sponsors feared that the bill, providing the framework of a national policy for responding to the deadly disease, might die in the last days of the 100th Congress. But negotiators finally reached an agreement with Senate opponent Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and it was quickly approved in the House and Senate on voice votes.
Under the compromise, the federal government would provide $100 million annually in funds for AIDS testing programs, instead of the $400 million called for in the original bill.
The scaled-back legislation also deletes broad federal protections for the confidentiality of AIDS test results and substitutes a requirement that only programs that receive funds for AIDS testing must protect the “anonymity” of people who come forward to be tested.
Sponsors were pleased that the $800-million legislation was approved. But they expressed anger that the AIDS bill, which was attached to the larger package of health-care legislation and now goes to President Reagan for his expected approval, had been watered down.
“I’m bitterly disappointed that we didn’t get strong testing and counseling provisions into the bill,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who developed much of the legislation as it moved through the House.
“We’ve got important advances in here, but we still have a job to do,” he said, vowing that House members would take up legislation next year mandating the confidentiality of AIDS test results and protecting people with the disease from discrimination.
In the measure, Congress voted to authorize about $250 million for AIDS education programs, targeting minority groups and intravenous drug users. The legislation also would create a 15-member National AIDS Commission to pursue the recommendations of the President’s AIDS commission, which was dissolved in July.
The controversy over the confidentiality provisions surfaced last week when Helms exercised his right under Senate rules to block a meeting of House and Senate members who were seeking agreement on a final version of the AIDS legislation. If the conference did not take place before Congress’ expected adjournment next week, the bill could not have been finally approved and would have died.
Senators sponsoring the AIDS legislation said that they did not have enough time to call for a vote to override Helms, and several staff members had said that the bill seemed doomed for this year.
Helms’ principal objection was to strong language in the bill that barred any agency or group administering AIDS tests from divulging the names of those tested, even to government health officials. He said that the epidemic poses a national health risk and supersedes the concerns of individuals involved.
Waxman and others have contended, however, that individuals who have AIDS or are at risk of developing the deadly disease may not come forward for testing unless they are assured that their identities will be kept in confidence. Without greater testing data, they have said, the government will never be able to gauge the full extent of the disease.
Negotiators representing Waxman and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the sponsors of the bill, reluctantly agreed to delete the confidentiality provisions as a price of passing any AIDS legislation this year.
Under the new language, programs that receive federal funds for testing would have to respect the anonymity of each person. However, groups that conduct AIDS testing with other resources would be free to set their own standards.
After the bill was passed Thursday, several legislators blasted Helms for his actions. The North Carolina senator could not be reached for comment.
“At the tail end of the session like this, a man like Helms can exert more pressure than he deserves,” said Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who has clashed repeatedly with Helms over federal AIDS policy. “Jesse Helms shouldn’t be writing any AIDS bill.”
Waxman also was furious that the bill had been held hostage.
“The full Congress has been prevented from considering the issue of confidentiality because of the bizarre rules of the U.S. Senate . . . which allow one or a few senators to hold up debate. We spent a year developing a strong bill and we have lost precious time.”
Before their vote, Senate and House members attached the AIDS measure to a larger package of health-care legislation, which includes funds for the National Institute of Health, mental health care for the homeless, funds for organ transplants and other programs.
In a key provision, the bill extends the current federal moratorium on the use of fetal tissue for research purposes, pending an inquiry by the Congressional Ethics Board.