The AIDS epidemic reached a grim new milestone late last month— and a controversy over insurance eligibility clearly demonstrated the spreading effects of the disease. Barely five years after doctors diagnosed the first AIDS case in Canada, federal Health and Welfare officials in Ottawa reported that the number of known victims had reached 1,000.
Of that number, 502 have already died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a condition that cripples the body’s ability to resist disease.
One result of the unchecked spread of AIDS: tougher medical examinations for life insurance applicants.
Indeed, insurance officials say that as many as 360,000 Canadians—
20 per cent of all applicants in a given yearmay soon have to submit to tests for the disease in order to obtain coverage. Declared Charles Black, vicepresident for the Toronto-based Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA):
“Anyone who tests positive for exposure to the virus will not be eligible for life insurance—at least until we know more about the disease.”
As AIDS spread, several insurance companies began in 1985 to demand blood sample tests for exposure to the disease from young adult males—particularly those whom they suspected were homosexual. For one thing, the latest figures released by Ottawa show that homosexual and bisexual men constitute 82.1 per cent of the reported AIDS cases in Canada. Now, most Canadian insurance firms routinely test all adult applicants for large policies. They do so in order to avoid paying AIDS-caused death benefits long before those policies would have a chance to mature according to standard actuarial tables. Declared Robert Timmins, the senior underwriter at Maritime Life Assurance Co. in Halifax: “Once you have AIDS, you’re looking at a three-to-fouryear life-span.”
CLHIA spokesmen say that increased
AIDS testing is simply an extension of industry-wide practices. They note that some companies already conduct tests for diabetes, liver damage and heart disease for policies carrying death benefits of $250,000 or more. As well, insurers say that the companies do not reject potential policyholders until an initial detection of the AIDS
antibody is confirmed by two further tests—one of which has close to a 99per-cent reliability rating. A Kansasbased laboratory that has been conducting those tests for Canadian insurers for the past 18 months now detects an average of 10 potential AIDS victims among the 2,000 samples it screens each month.
Clearly, those tests would already prevent large numbers of Canadians from obtaining life insurance coverage. That is because in addition to the diagnosed victims of the incurable disease, which is transmitted in semen during vaginal or anal intercourse, and through blood exchange, at least 50,000 Canadians have come into contact with the virus. Blood tests quickly detect the antibodies they produce to fight it. Representatives of AIDS victims’ orga-
nizations say that the simple presence of those antibodies should not prevent anyone from buying a life insurance policy. Indeed, a spokesman for an Edmonton-based AIDS organization said that in one instance an insurance firm declined to write a policy for a widely known local homosexual who had refused to take an AIDS test.
In the same way, James Hathaway, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, maintained that medical experts estimate 50 to 75 per cent of those showing positive on such tests will not contract the disease. Said Hathaway, a spokesman for The Right to Privacy Committee, a human rights lobby group: “The correlation between the antibody test and AIDS is not absolute.”
But in Halifax, Dr. Walter Schlech, a specialist in infectious diseases and a member of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, had a different —and far more pessimistic—view. Schlech noted that findi— ings from recent studies i are inconclusive, and g that it is possible that £ everyone who tests posiI tive for AIDS antibodies ä may eventually develop the disease.
As a result, some insurers want stronger provincial laws governing reporting of AIDS cases. Currently, five provinces—Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland—require doctors to inform health authorities about patients who test positive for the virus. But insurance companies are not obliged to release their test findings. Declared Dr. Paul Kordish, medical director for The Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. in Waterloo, Ont.: “Morally, ethically,
I think we have a public health obligation to report. But legally, I’m not sure we do.” Certainly, the insurance industry’s growing support for increased AIDS reporting alone indicates the speed with which the deadly disease is spreading.
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