Hearing on AIDS Tests Puts Dannemeyer in Spotlight
Hundreds of reporters, television crews, AIDS activists and right-wing stalwarts will jostle into a Capitol Hill hearing room this morning to watch a frail young woman, a hair’s breadth from death, indict the public health establishment for allowing her dentist to infect her with AIDS.
At the center of the tumult will be Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), the Orange County conservative whose controversial views on AIDS and its treatment have outraged liberal politicians, homosexual activists and public health officials--and inspired conservative supporters in and out of the medical community.
The appearance of Kimberly Bergalis before a House energy and commerce subcommittee is strictly a Dannemeyer show. More importantly, it represents the rising credibility of Dannemeyer as an influential player in Washington after 12 years of often being ignored or derided in Congress as an extremist.
Dannemeyer’s newfound authority stems from his ascendance by seniority last January to the position of ranking Republican on the health and environmental panel chaired by the congressman’s nemesis, liberal Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
Last year, Waxman was the author of an AIDS funding bill that was named after Ryan White, an Indiana boy infected through a blood transfusion whose fight against AIDS discrimination became a national symbol.
In Bergalis, Dannemeyer has found his own symbol.
“Ms. Bergalis presents the best chance I’ve seen so far to help persuade the public as to how disserved a lot of us have been by the medical professionals in this country,” said Dannemeyer, who is running against U.S. Sen. John Seymour in next year’s Republican primary.
The Bergalis hearing, which focuses on Dannemeyer legislation that would require states to test health care workers who perform invasive medical procedures, foreshadows how Dannemeyer plans to use his new position to gain public attention for his conservative views.
“We’re all equal here,” Dannemeyer said in an interview Wednesday. “But when you’re ranking Republican, you’re first among equals.”
Dannemeyer aides believe it is unlikely that Waxman would have scheduled today’s hearing if the Orange County congressman had not assumed the ranking minority post last January when Rep. Edward Madigan (R-Ill.) left the House to become secretary of agriculture.
Dannemeyer controls the minority staff on the powerful subcommittee, which oversees such issues as health insurance, food labeling and pollution--subjects on which Dannemeyer has strong, conservative views.
Dannemeyer’s new position may not improve his spotty record on enacting legislation, aides say, but he is likely to be much more visible on the national stage.
Privately, Democratic aides view Dannemeyer as a political Neanderthal, and believe his views on AIDS, sex education, abortion, health care and other issues would be laughable if they were not an impediment to the subcommittee’s work. But none is willing to voice such criticism for attribution.
Waxman himself is harshly critical of Dannemeyer in off-the-record conversations, according to several Capitol Hill reporters. But the Los Angeles congressman tempers his on-the-record remarks.
In an interview last year, for example, the worst Waxman had to say was that Dannemeyer “will seek opportunities to try to make his point even if it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. . . . It’s almost an assault on people, that this is what he believes and everybody else must be confronted with it rather than be persuaded.”
Dannemeyer himself is equally circumspect.
“I have the greatest respect for Henry Waxman. He is a bright, able legislator, a liberal committed to the view that anything that moves should be regulated, anything that grows should be taxed, and anything that makes a profit should be investigated for doing something illegal,” Dannemeyer said.
In another breath, he allowed that working with Waxman “at times really strains your patience . . . and your sense of civility.”
But the two Californians will have to work together, at least for the next 15 months, when Dannemeyer would lose his House seat if he continues his campaign for the Senate past the March deadline to file for Congress.
The AIDS legislation to be considered today is a prime example of the gap that separates Dannemeyer and Waxman.
The Kimberly Bergalis Patient and Health Providers’ Protection Act would require states to test for AIDS those health care workers who perform any of a series of specific, invasive dental and medical procedures. States would be required to bar health care workers who test positive from performing such procedures.
At the same time, the bill would authorize health care workers, under certain conditions, to test patients for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, and other infections without the patient’s consent.
Waxman strongly opposes the bill, as does the American Medical Assn. and other health organizations and officials who contend that the risk of transmitting HIV from a health care worker to a patient is extremely remote.
Bergalis and four other patients apparently were infected by their dentist, Dr. David Acer, of Stuart, Fla., a bisexual who treated 2,000 patients after learning he was infected with HIV. Acer died of AIDS last year.
Dannemeyer has long believed in requiring doctors to report, in confidence, to public health authorities the names of patients who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.
Waxman and many public health officials believe such reporting requirements would be disastrous, because they would push those most in need of AIDS testing away from the health care system for fear of discrimination.
At a Capitol Hill press conference, anticipating today’s testimony, Bergalis’ parents appealed for support for the Dannemeyer bill.
“Her journey here, whatever happens, may be her last,” her father, George Bergalis, told a roomful of reporters and television crews. “Her dying wish . . . is that every member of Congress have an opportunity to vote on this issue.”
‘RELENTLESS TRAGEDY’: Panel blasts government, societal apathy in AIDS fight. A3