Former North Texas resident wins lawsuit over HIV discrimination

Posted Monday, Apr. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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When Sue Gibson tried to get treatment for an eating disorder at a clinic near St. Louis in November 2010, she was initially told there was a waiting list.

Gibson, 56, a Fort Worth native who had been HIV positive since 1989, said she didn't think this was odd and assumed she would be accepted in a few weeks. But as the months passed and her health deteriorated, she began to wonder.

"I had lost 20 pounds," Gibson said. "I was depressed and anxious and staying at home."

A former nurse who moved from North Texas to Missouri in 2004, Gibson was stunned when the caseworker at Castlewood Treatment Center for Eating Disorders mentioned she was unlikely to be admitted because she was HIV positive.

"The woman I was working with eventually said, 'You know, Susan, I should have realized we're not going to admit you because we turned away someone with hepatitis C last year,' " Gibson said. "I was stunned that someone would think that blood-borne infection would be a problem."

Gibson didn't accept her rejection lightly. Castlewood ultimately agreed in February to a $140,000 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department -- $115,000 to Gibson and $25,000 in civil penalties -- the second highest in the history of HIV-related discrimination cases.

"Excluding a person from necessary medical treatment solely because of HIV is unconscionable," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said when the settlement was announced in February.

Castlewood insisted it did not discriminate, even after it told Gibson in May 2011 that it would not admit her "due to her HIV," according to settlement documents. Castlewood eventually agreed to accept her as long as blood draws were conducted off-site, then changed course again in July 2011, when it said it would take Gibson without any preconditions. But she decided to go to a California clinic.

"Castlewood's sole intent in this matter was to assure optimal patient care," the statement said. "After evaluating all pertinent factors Castlewood's professional staff concluded that the prospective patient would receive more appropriate care at an in-patient facility.

"Castlewood has always and continues to put the interests of those seeking treatment above everything else and does not discriminate in patient care," the statement said.

How often these types of discrimination cases occur is uncertain.

"The sad fact is we don't know how often this type of discrimination occurs because the people who are affected often don't report it either because they don't realize it is illegal, or they do not want to reveal their HIV status to others," says Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

Gibson, who lived in North Texas until 2004, said she developed anorexia problems as a teenager.

The Texas Woman's University graduate never went to Castlewood, but said her health has improved dramatically.

"My weight is restored," Gibson said. "I'm active. I'm volunteering."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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