Jim Malone spent years battling depression and losing weight, expecting to die at any time. He attended support group meetings and accepted free meals from an AIDS charity.
Malone's main physician, Dr. Richard Karp, acknowledged the error in an Aug. 4 letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic where Malone was treated. "As his primary care provider, I take full responsibility," the doctor wrote.
Malone, who is gay and has lost friends to AIDS, said he is relieved but angry at his doctor.
"He told me, 'We made a very big mistake. We did not do our job,"' he said. "I said, 'You mean to tell me that all you have to say is you are sorry? Sorry that I lived for all this time believing I was going to die?'"
The Oakland Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating.
The error may have occurred because Malone arrived at the clinic in 1996 with lab results from a testing firm showing he had HIV, said Karen Pridmore, spokeswoman for the VA's Northern California Health Care System.
The clinic performed its own HIV test on Malone to confirm the first set of results and it came back negative, but that information was never shared with the patient, Pridmore said.
The mistake was uncovered by the VA's computer system, which tracks HIV patients and conducts a periodic review of cases.