Insurers criticised for attitude to gay men -

Homosexuals still face discrimination when applying for protection policies, says Kate Hughes

Discriminating against people based on their sexuality should be a thing of the past. When it comes to personal protection like life insurance and critical illness, nobody should be able to demand sensitive information from homosexuals that they would not ask of heterosexuals. But in reality, an argument is raging over continued discrimination of gay men and their risk of HIV/Aids.

A report by Compass, an independent financial adviser for the gay community, has found that confusion, mixed messages and unreasonable prejudice about HIV/Aids is still frequently experienced by gay men applying for protection policies.

Until recently, it was standard practice for insurers to ask gay men who wanted life insurance or a critical illness protection policy about the number of sexual partners they have had, and whether they had safe sex or not.

In 2005, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) produced strict guidelines on what questions could be asked of applicants to assess the risks to their health. This means that no one can be asked about their sexuality or their personal behaviour directly. All applicants will now be asked generic questions like: "Have you ever tested positive for HIV, Hepatitis B or C, or are you awaiting the results of such a test?"

However, despite claims from insurers that they have embraced these guidelines, research suggests that gay men still find they are more likely to be subjected to unnecessary HIV tests than heterosexual applicants. According to Compass, more than 80 per cent of customer service staff at the major insurance companies still give incorrect information, often resulting in the demand for HIV tests when dealing with applications.

Equal treatment?

The stage at which insurers demand HIV tests seems to vary dramatically, and confusion among staff means that some gay men are still having to take a test to assure a small amount.

Some companies will not ask for an HIV test until the sum assured reaches £1m. Royal Liver, for example, has a limit of £1m of cover without HIV testing both for gay men within a Civil Partnership and married couples. But the report highlights failings by Legal & General and AEGON Scottish Equitable staff in particular, for imposing HIV tests on applicants for very low sums assured. Compass found evidence to suggest that even gay men aged 66-70 in civil partnerships had to go through the test in order to get cover when applying for a sum as low as £25,000.

Bright Grey's official stance is that they will not demand an HIV test for anyone on a sum assured less than £1m. The research has found that this is true of married couples but for civil partnerships the limit is reduced to about £250,000, contravening the discrimination laws. "It's remarkable that so many insurance companies are failing when looking after gay clients," says Chris Morgan of Compass.

Reality on the ground

"This shouldn't happen," says Jonathan French of the ABI. "There may be isolated occasions when employees get it wrong, but HIV testing is nothing to do with being gay or straight."

Legal & General refutes the suggestion that they discriminate against gay people. Russ Whitworth, director of claims and underwriting, says: "Legal & General fully supports, and is compliant with, the ABI Statement of Best Practice on HIV and Insurance. HIV risk is assessed based on exposure to the risk of HIV infection. We take no account of whether a male customer is gay; we do not ask customers if they are gay at any time. Our policy is to ask an applicant to take an HIV test for high sums assured for life cover – for single males, this is more than £300,000 and for married males, males in a civil partnership and all females, this is more than £1m."

Aegon Scottish Equitable also says their HIV testing limits are in line with the ABI's guidelines, but added: "We are disappointed by the findings of this survey and will be providing additional training to our customer service staff in order that they are familiar with our HIV testing limits and underwriting philosophy in order that this type of incident does not happen in future."

"It is against industry standards to even ask someone if they are gay as part of a protection application," says Roger Edwards of Bright Grey. "We now have a lot of work going on inside the company to alter the limits."

But he did warn that single men, regardless of sexuality, applying for insurance will still be put through an HIV test at lower cut off points than anyone else. "Statistically, you are more likely to be at risk of HIV/Aids as a single man," says Edwards.

The irony of all this is that according to figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA), gay men are no longer the community at greatest risk of being exposed to HIV/Aids. In 2006, the last time the statistics were compiled, about 2 per cent of the male gay community were living with HIV/Aids. But, according to the HPA, almost half of all new diagnoses in the UK in 2006 were among those of Black African origin – predominantly heterosexual. About 3 per cent of this community in England is now living with HIV/Aids.

Morgan warns that if gay men or any minority group feel they are being discriminated against, they may turn their back on protection altogether. If a grey area continues to hang over the issue, not having financial protection means that those left behind could face crippling financial burdens if the worst happens, just when that money is needed the most.

WHAT INSURERS CAN AND CAN'T ASK

Questions an insurer can ask:
*Assessing HIV risk – a general question for all applicants about potential HIV exposure
*Negative and Positive HIV Tests – applicants will not be penalised for negative results
*Sexually Transmitted Infections

What an insurer can't ask:
*Sexuality: Insurers may not ask you any questions about your sexuality. Even if you inadvertently disclose this information, it will not be used in assessing your application. Instead, the HIV risk questions ask about your personal behaviour
*HIV risk: GPs are required to inform insurers if an applicant is HIV positive or is awaiting an HIV test result. They will not notify insurers of negative tests that have been taken. GPs are only contacted by insurers in a minority of cases and, even then, only with your consent. Typically this is done to get more information on a medical condition you have disclosed
*Sexually Transmitted Diseases: GPs are required to disclose sexually transmitted infections which have long-term health implications. GPs are not allowed to tell insurers if you have had a single instance of a minor sexually transmitted disease
*Civil partnerships: Because there is no data on the sexual behaviour of couples in a civil partnership, some life insurance companies are still treating these couples as single people for assessing HIV risk. Others are treating them in the same way as heterosexual married couples

Source – Association of British Insurers Consumer Guide for gay men on HIV and Life Insurance

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