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HIV: insurers get out of their straight jackets

Gay men should no longer face discrimination if they apply for life cover or income protection

Sexuality, you might think, has absolutely nothing to do with the state of your personal finances.

But gay men will tell you different after suffering years of discrimination at the hands of insurers over their perceived risk of contracting HIV and Aids.

The insurance industry introduced a "best practice" code last year, and is moving away from "leading" questions on application forms. In the past, these questions automatically resulted in the sort of box-ticking that could lead to higher premiums for life insurance, say, or income protection.

Yet despite these moves, concerns about expense and prejudice still persist in the gay community. In some cases, gay men won't take out any cover at all - which can leave their partners vulnerable if a mortgage, for example, isn't backed by life cover.

Now the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has launched a guide for gay men to try to dispel the confusion and instil confidence in protection products.

"[It] has two functions: to explain changes [in the way] insurers deal with issues of sexuality; and to explode many of the myths surrounding the treatment of gay men applying for life and protection insurance," says Jonathan French, spokesman for the ABI. "We want to set the record straight and ensure accurate information is out there for those applying for cover."

For example, he says, the guide aims to lay to rest the common misconception that simply taking an HIV test will have a detrimental effect on your application. "The truth is, you don't have to declare negative tests."

The ABI is also keen to point out that GPs can be contacted by insurers only with the consent of the applicant, and are only then required to inform the company if that person is HIV positive or awaiting an HIV test result.

The guide has been welcomed by campaigners, who say it is now far easier for gay men to obtain cover without discrimination.

"This consumer guide is another piece of the jigsaw relating to the new HIV and insurance guidelines introduced last year," says Chris Morgan of independent financial adviser (IFA) Compass, which offers specialist advice to the gay community. "Since then, I have not heard of a single instance of an applicant being asked questions about their sexuality."

Last year's "statement of best practice" from the ABI set out new industry guidelines for insurers when dealing with applications where HIV could be an issue. Kevin Carr of protection broker Lifesearch points out that even if you inadvertently disclose information about your sexuality, it will now not be used in assessing your application.

Further to this, insurers can no longer make assumptions about an applicant's sexuality from the details of his or her living arrangements, occupation or medical history.

Instead, they must assess each applicant on a case-by-case basis, using the best available relevant evidence. No "excessive, speculative or irrelevant" information can be requested to determine premiums and levels of cover.

Insurers can now ask applicants, regardless of their sexuality, only a general HIV-risk question, such as: "Within the past five years, have you been exposed to the risk of HIV infection?" They can also ask if you have tested positive.

"In the past, some insurers differed in what questions they asked - and how they would act depending on the answers given," says Mr Carr. "Although we have not experienced discrimination of this kind ourselves, the ABI had reason to believe it was happening in a small area of the market."

However, companies can sometimes include examples of increased risk of HIV in their questions. This can be caught through unsafe sex, intravenous drug use or blood transfusions or surgery undertaken outside the European Union.

Mr Morgan at Compass points out that gay men are now able to obtain reasonable levels of life cover - up to £1m - without needing to take an HIV test.

But he adds that while a "huge amount of progress has been made" in putting the relationship between insurers and the gay community on a "better footing", there are still issues outstanding.

For example, he says, the ABI's working group on HIV and insurance is currently looking to ensure that men who register civil partnerships are treated fairly on HIV risk, compared with both single men and married couples. This comes amid concerns that some life firms are still treating gay couples as single people in assessing risk, while others are treating them in the same way as heterosexual married couples.

Until the arrival of civil partnerships last December, gay men and women could not pass on property and assets to each other on their death without facing an inheritance tax bill, and did not enjoy the same pension and social security benefits as married couples. More than 15,500 gay partnerships have taken place since the Act came into operation on 5 December, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Despite the progress made in insurance, anti-gay attitudes persist elsewhere.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, former Lord Chancellor and patron of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, recently made the headlines when he opposed new rules banning businesses offering goods and services from discriminating against homosexuals.

This kind of attitude resonates all too loudly with many gay men who remember the unfair treatment they first received in the late 1980s, when the threat of Aids prompted the UK government to issue a health-warning leaflet featuring a tombstone.