Companies routinely reject applicants with Aids or who are HIV-positive – it’s time for change

Which is the least likely group to buy insurance? Twenty-five-year-olds on a stag weekend in Barcelona? Nineteen-year-olds recklessly driving without cover? No, it’s the LGBT community, according to Steve Wardlaw, head of innovative new insurer, Emerald Life. “There is a massive distrust of insurers in the community,” he says, adding that they are 50% more likely to have no insurance at all. “A lot still think they won’t get cover, especially life insurance, if they are gay. They feel so disenfranchised, they don’t bother.”

In my early days as a journalist on a trade paper in the late 1980s I remember well an appalling conversation with the marketing manager of a (then) major insurer when the HIV/Aids epidemic was at its height and insurers were determined to avoid having any gay men on their books. “They’re quite easy to spot,” he bragged, as his PR person squirmed. “If the application comes from a middle-aged, single, antique dealer with a Volvo then we know straight away.”

What struck me most was the Volvo bit. Are Volvos particularly gay?

It’s worth recalling, also, how the insurance industry jacked up premiums for life cover almost across the board. In the mid-1980s, scientists were predicting that the cumulative total of UK HIV cases could reach 300,000 by 1992. Thankfully, those forecasts proved wrong. But my lingering suspicion is that those higher premiums more than covered the “excess deaths” from HIV, meaning insurers probably made a tidy profit.

Despite significant improvements, anomalies remain. A critical illness policy will pay out on diagnosis of HIV, but only if the infection was acquired “innocently” – through work, assault, or a blood transfusion. Nearly three decades on from the darkest days of the Aids disaster – in 1990 it caused 61% of all deaths of men aged 25-44 in San Francisco – we’ve reached the situation where young people receiving the latest HIV drugs now have a “near-normal” life expectancy. Yet pop on to an insurer’s website – Legal & General, for example – and you’ll find that while it won’t ask a question about your sexuality, it bluntly states: “We currently decline applicants with Aids, or who are infected with HIV.”

Given the near undetectable viral load of many people living with HIV, plus the huge success of PrEP – which, when used daily, reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90% – it must surely be time for the industry to revisit blanket rejections because of an HIV infection. Although Emerald Life hasn’t yet been able to create a life insurance policy that truly ends discrimination (“we’re working on it,” says Wardlaw), its home and travel policies cover many medical conditions including HIV with no automatic premium hikes. It’s time the rest of the industry caught up.