BOSTON, AUG. 26 -- A majority of the country's top businesses are unprepared to deal with AIDS despite growing evidence the fatal disease could eventually cost corporate America billions of dollars, a survey released today found.
Of 100 Fortune 1000 companies surveyed in late July, only 29 had policies for dealing with employes with AIDS and nine were considering adopting guidelines, according to the survey by the Boston office of TeleSearch Inc.
"It is almost as though most of these companies don't want to admit that AIDS exists or that it will only affect the 'other' company," said Ellen C. Kinlin, president of TeleSearch, a national executive search firm that is owned by Fidelity Investments.
Three of the companies surveyed said they would fire employes who contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome, while 25 said they might do so, the survey discovered.
Sixty-seven companies said they would not fire employes with AIDS and five refused to answer the question.
Of the 14 companies requiring employes to have regular medical checkups, only one required an AIDS test, TeleSearch said.
Only five of the companies in the survey said they would consider testing their employes for AIDS or providing them with educational materials about the disease, TeleSearch said.
One-third of the companies said they expected health insurance costs to increase dramatically because of AIDS while 25 companies said insurance costs would not increase, according to the survey.
AIDS eventually could cost major corporations billions of dollars because of increased health insurance costs, lost work time and production and related costs, the TeleSearch report said. TeleSearch refused to release the names of the companies it surveyed, saying it promised them confidentiality.
The surveyed companies are in New England, New York, Washington and Chicago and represent manufacturing, insurance, health care, utilities and consumer products, the company said.
A random survey of a dozen major companies today by The Associated Press found varying efforts to deal with AIDS, which attacks the body's ability to fight disease and infection.
The disease primarily is spread through sexual contact and the sharing of infected needles by intravenous drug users.
Several company spokesmen said constant developments in research and the uncertainty among government and the insurance industry about how to respond to the disease were partly responsible for what TeleSearch termed the corporate world's lagging response to dealing with AIDS.
"We have a very broad AIDS policy," said William Kennedy, spokesman for General Electric Co. in Lynn, Mass.
General Electric does not test current or prospective employes for AIDS and would not fire a worker who had the disease, Kennedy said.
"Our medical department does not recommend blanket testing for AIDS because of the uncertainty of present tests and of predicting development of the disease," he said.
Kennedy said he is not aware of any company workers who had AIDS but said GE's health benefits would cover treatment.
He said it is premature to speculate whether AIDS would significantly increase the cost of health insurance for major corporations.
"Obviously, if it did reach the pandemic proportions some predict it would cost a great deal of money," he said.
Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor with 76,000 employes worldwide, does not have a formal AIDS policy, said spokesman Ed Powers.
"Our approach to AIDS is on a case-by-case basis," Powers said. "We don't see any hard and fast answers to the AIDS question at this point. A position this week could change based on new information next week."
Textron Inc., a conglomerate based in Providence, R.I., does not have a corporate policy dealing with AIDS but would not fire an employe who got the disease, said Vice President Raymond W. Caine.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. does not have an AIDS policy because it "does not differentiate between AIDS and any other illness or disease," said Doug Fairweather, a spokesman for the Chicago-based retail company.