It was heralded as a way for California to closely track the spread of HIV without compromising patient privacy or civil rights. Rather than reporting infected...

Share story

LOS ANGELES — It was heralded as a way for California to closely track the spread of HIV without compromising patient privacy or civil rights. Rather than reporting infected patients by name, public-health agencies would identify them by codes.

However, California’s 3-year-old reporting system for the human immunodeficiency virus has become a bureaucratic morass.

Laboratories are reporting incomplete or erroneous codes to health departments. Doctors’ offices aren’t keeping required logs of their HIV-positive patients. Public-health officials say their backlog of cases numbers in the thousands as they spend hours chasing bad information.

Countless cases are believed to be lost in the system. As a result, health authorities throughout the state say they cannot effectively monitor the epidemic or direct scarce dollars where they are most needed.

“We’ve done our best to make this system succeed,” said Gordon Bunch, director of the HIV epidemiology program at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. “Despite our best effort, it has failed.”

Even some original supporters of the code system, which was implemented in July 2002, say it is inevitable that the state will have to scrap it and start over.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider codes accurate enough.

California ultimately stands to lose up to $50 million annually in federal money designated to treat HIV patients and prevent the spread of the virus, a state task force estimated last year.