In re Belynda Dunn
By 2001, thanks to new treatments and therapies, people were living with HIV. But as people with HIV lived longer, they began to face other life-threatening diseases.
In 2001 in Massachusetts, GLAD represented two people whose HIV was under control, but who had only months to live because of end-stage liver disease caused by Hepatitis C (HCV). Both needed liver transplants to live. But private insurers and Medicaid claimed that transplants were “experimental” in people with HIV, and refused to pay.
In two of the first cases of their kind, GLAD challenged these decisions and won, giving people with HIV a fair shot at medical procedures they need to live.
One case involved Boston AIDS activist Belynda Dunn, who had been living with HIV for years. Without a liver transplant, Belynda’s doctors said she had only months to live. But her private insurer, Neighborhood Health Plan, refused to cover it.
Belynda didn’t take “no” for an answer, and teamed up with GLAD and AIDS Action Committee to fight back.
GLAD filed an emergency lawsuit in federal court on July 16, 2001 on Belynda’s behalf, arguing for a preliminary injunction against Neighborhood Health Plan. GLAD argued that NHP’s refusal was based on antiquated medical standards and bias against people with HIV.
GLAD attorney and AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein said at the time, “The HMO’s actions were a categorical, absolute denial of liver transplant services for any person who also has HIV.
“The HMO is basically saying that people with HIV do not deserve to have their HCV cured. That is an outrage when a liver transplant will prevent certain death.”
While the lawsuit was pending, Neighborhood Health Plan agreed to contribute $100,000 to a fund to pay for liver transplants for Belynda and other people with HIV and HCV. With another $50,000 contributed by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and several anonymous donations arranged by Mayor Thomas Menino, the fund raised $275,000.
Belynda’s federal lawsuit ended when her individual situation was addressed. GLAD later that year won a landmark victory against MassHealth on behalf of another person living with HIV and HCV who needed a liver transplant. In the first legal ruling of its kind in the country, the Massachusetts Division of Medical Assistance Board of Hearings ruled that there may be no categorical exclusion of HIV-positive people from liver transplants.