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Missouri Lawmakers Want To Bring HIV Laws To The 21st Century

Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, at a press conference discussing new legislation that would modernize HIV laws in Missouri on Dec. 11, 2019.
Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, introduced legislation to modernize HIV laws in Missouri and mandate a statewide prescription drug monitoring program.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working to change current Missouri law on HIV that they say hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. 

Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, said current laws now actually discourage people from being tested. She said if someone knowingly exposes their partner to HIV and they contract the disease, it’s a class A felony. This is the most serious of felony crimes that include murder, rape and forcible kidnapping. 

“If you don’t know your status, there’s no way in Missouri you can be charged with that class A felony,” Rehder said Wednesday in announcing the proposed legislative change. “Not knowing your status in Missouri, unfortunately, keeps people from having that concern, which, in turn, keeps people from getting tested.” 

In comparison, driving intoxicated and causing someone’s death is a class C felony. 

Rehder’s legislation would reduce knowingly exposing someone to HIV who then contracts it to a class C felony. Her bill also reduces the penalty of knowingly exposing someone to the disease who does not contract it from a class B felony to a class D felony. 

Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, filed separate legislation that completely eliminates felony charges and reduces all transmission offenses to misdemeanors. 

“That’s based on input that we received from experts around the country,” she said. “It puts it more in line with other kinds of disease transmission, as well.” 

Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director with Empower Missouri, said it gets it out of the area of disclosure altogether. Both of these laws focus on intent. 

“Were you intending to transmit HIV? Because right now our law says condom use is no defense,” she said. “So you could be trying not to transmit HIV and still be charged with a crime in Missouri.”

There were roughly 13,000 people living with HIV in Missouri in 2018, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Missouri has also been categorized as one of seven states in the U.S. with a rural HIV epidemic. However, with adequate treatment, those who are HIV-positive can avoid getting AIDS. Medication can also suppress the virus and reduce the risk of transmitting it to another person. 

“HIV is no longer a death sentence if you’re being treated,” Rehder said. 

Rehder’s bill and McCreery’s bill were both pre-filed on Wednesday. Full language was made available on Thursday. Sen. Shalonn “Kiki” Curls, D-Kansas City, plans to file similar legislation in the Senate next week. 

On another health issue, Rehder will again attempt to pass a statewide prescription drug monitoring program. 

Many states across the nation experienced a decrease in drug overdose deaths in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Missouri saw a 12% increase

Data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services shows that one out of every 65 deaths in Missouri in 2017 was caused by opioid overdose. Also, Missouri is also the only state without a PDMP.

Rehder said she believes she has the support to get it done this year. Approaching her final year in the House, she said it’s incredibly important to get it done this legislative session. 

“I was raised on welfare, single mom, multiple stepdads, multiple mom’s boyfriends in the home; one of my stepdads was a dealer,” she said. “I had quite a bit of a different lifestyle than many of my colleagues. You know, I had to quit school at 15 to help take care of my family and had my first baby at 16. I’ve seen some things that maybe some others haven’t.”

Rehder said she feels a personal responsibility to explain how policies affect the people who grew up in “her part of the community.”

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.