Dottie Wham, a Brief History of Public Health Reporting

a laboratory technician is in the process of pipetting a sample of vitamin E acetate.
Earlier this month, a joint memorial for former state Sen. Dottie Wham was introduced in the Senate. Wham, who died in 2019 at age 94, was credited in the memorial with creating the statewide trauma system Colorado still uses today. / Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

Earlier this month and in the second week of the session, state Sen. Regina Rodriguez and Rep. Matt Froelich, among other sponsors, introduced a joint memorial in the Senate for former state Sen. Dottie Wham, who died in October 2019 at age 94. According to Wham’s obituary, “From 1972 to 1980, she served as a member of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and from 1972 to 1982 she served as the Colorado/Wyoming State Director of the federal program ACTION.”

Wham, who served for roughly 17 years as a state lawmaker, was the first person to become chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who wasn’t an attorney. According to the memorial, her other notable accomplishments included the passing of 243 bills for which she was the prime sponsor.

The memorial also noted Wham spent nine years working with “other legislators, rural and urban hospitals, patient representatives, fire departments, and professional associations of physicians, nurses, and emergency medical technicians” to establish a statewide trauma system Colorado still uses today. The system ensures anyone with a trauma injury is “taken to the most appropriate facility as quickly as possible.”

Wham also introduced a bill to establish confidential HIV testing, the newborn hearing test system, standards for end-of-life care and a bill that took aim at criminal justice. The anonymous HIV testing bill was signed into law by former Gov. Roy Romer in April 1993. Wham, a Republican lawmaker, was a former advocate of mandatory reporting for all HIV test results, according to news coverage from OUT FRONT

Opponents of the anonymous testing bill said if no test results were reported, the state wouldn’t be able to effectively track HIV infections to avoid preventable epidemics or outbreaks. Currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia are required to report new AIDS infections but more states have opted out of reporting HIV test results.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, routine testing for HIV is recommended and all but two states adhere to the CDC’s recommendations, Nebraska and New York. Colorado still provides confidential testing for HIV, but transmits minimal reporting information to relevant municipalities and agencies for public health purposes only.

The state’s General Assembly authorized Colorado’s first anonymous test site in Denver in 1990, according to OUT FRONT. The site proved successful as program sponsors “found repeatedly that the availability of anonymous testing encouraged a significant number of at-risk people who otherwise would not get tested to be tested,” OUT FRONT reported. 

But this wasn’t Wham’s first or only foray into complex or heated lawmaking. Two years before the HIV bill, Wham worked on another bill protecting people in clinical trials for experimental AIDS drugs from having their names revealed to health authorities. That bill was passed in 1991

Wham in 1989 also voiced her support of an amended bill in the Senate that banned smoking in all retail and food establishments, according to a report from Aspen Daily News. “There are people who are badly affected by secondary smoke,” Wham said to the outlet. “This is not asking a whole lot from anyone.” The Aspen Daily News reported the amended bill would only subject smokers who violated the law to a $25 fine and required store owners to post no-smoking signs at entrances and checkout areas. 

In 1988, Wham was an outspoken opponent of a bill that would have allowed a sentencing jury to hear evidence about other crimes committed by a person convicted of a capital crime. Wham told the Douglas County News-Press, “I guess I’m a purist.” Wham went on to note she had “no problem with the death penalty,” nor with conviction evidence going to a sentencing jury. But she said she would amend the bill if the bill’s prime sponsor wouldn’t. 

And before Wham’s successful AIDS bill, another bill she was the prime sponsor of was killed in committee on the last day of the session in 1989. That bill would have “allowed the state to seek a Medicaid waiver to treat AIDS patients at home instead of in a hospital or nursing home.” It was estimated at the time the state could have “saved more than $800,000 a year with the less-expensive home treatment,” according to coverage from OUT FRONT

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