NEW YORK -- Corporate America, facing an AIDS epidemic, must prepare for sharply increased health-care costs for employes afflicted with the deadly virus, medical benefit specialists warn.

"AIDS remains a touchy subject in the corporate environment. It deals with sex and death," said Pat Wiley, a Johnson & Higgins assistant vice president and employe-benefit consultant.

It also deals with money.

Health-care benefit costs could nearly quadruple by 1990 as the number of employes with the AIDS virus increases and medical treatment costs rise, according to a survey prepared by Johnson & Higgins, a New York employe-benefits consulting firm.

"AIDS in the work force is going to be a fact of life for many years to come," Thomas Billet, assistant vice president and consultant practice leader for health-care cost management at Johnson & Higgins, said Thursday.

"AIDS presents a challenge, a challenge of fairness and consistency and one that every employer must face," he said.

Medical costs associated with the care and treatment of AIDS victims are expected to range from $5.6 billion to $12.4 billion by 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Advances in medical technology that will prolong the lives and ease the suffering of AIDS patients also are expected to increase health care costs, thus increasing the cost of insurance both to providers and consumers.

"It's certainly a societal good, but perhaps not a financial good," Billet said.

A survey of 101 human resource managers conducted throughout the United States by Johnson & Higgins showed life insurance costs have increased 27.5 percent and health care costs have risen 4.5 percent since January 1986.

By 1990, health care benefit costs are expected to nearly quadruple to 16.2 percent.

Disability payments, which have increased by 3 percent since January 1986, are expected to jump an additional 8.8 percent within the next three years.

The survey, released Thursday, also showed 81 percent of the respondents said employers, rather than the government or patients, have a responsibility to bear the majority of the cost of treating AIDS.

Moreover, 87 percent indicated that AIDS should not be covered any differently than other terminal illnesses.

"In order to avoid discrimination problems, you must treat all people the same, no matter what they suffer from," Wiley said.

As of last month, 42,354 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States, resulting in 24,412 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control said.

First diagnosed in 1981 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, 71 percent of AIDS cases involve homosexual or bisexual men. Intravenous drug users account for 17 percent, Haitians for 5 percent, hemophiliacs 1 percent and others 6 percent.

At first, acquired immune deficiency syndrome was believed confined to the principal risk groups, primarily homosexual and bisexual men.

However, researchers agree the risk is broader than originally thought.

As many as 1 million Americans may be infected with the virus, according to health officials at an Atlanta meeting in mid-April 1985. There is no cure for the failure of the immune system that is the basis for AIDS