A D.C. City Council committee approved a bill yesterday to prohibit health and life insurance companies from denying coverage to someone who has tested positively for exposure to the AIDS virus.

The companies would be required to wait five years before they could propose a rate differential for such individuals under the measure.

The issue has put gay rights groups at odds with insurance companies, which contend they should be able to take into account whether an individual has been exposed to the AIDS virus when deciding whether to provide insurance coverage and at what rate.

Gay activists have said that most persons who test positively for exposure to the virus do not actually develop the deadly disease and that the test for exposure has been used unfairly to deny coverage to some individuals.

The bill unanimously approved yesterday by the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee included amendments aimed at allowing insurance companies eventually to consider the higher health risks of those exposed to the virus.

However, that would not be allowed until a reliable means of assessing risk has been identified and the District's superintendent of insurance determines that the higher rates are reasonable and justified by actual experience and sound actuarial principles.

The original version of the bill, introduced by City Council member John Ray (D-At Large), chairman of the committee, would have prohibited the use of AIDS antibody tests entirely when considering insurance applications. Even with the amendments, representatives of insurance companies here still said they oppose the measure, which they claim will result in higher insurance rates for other consumers.

"Healthy persons will have to pay an AIDS tax," said Russ Iuculano, legislative director of the American Council of Life Insurance Companies.

Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which serves gay men and women in the District, said the version passed yesterday was "very acceptable" to gay activists.

"There would be a protection of individual privacy with a five-year moratorium on any use of the AIDS antibody test by insurers," Graham said.

The bill does not extend its protections to those who actually have acquired immune deficiency syndrome but only to those who appear to have been exposed to the virus.

"We are not telling insurance companies they have to insure people who have developed AIDS," Ray said. "In a case where someone has AIDS and doesn't have insurance, we don't treat them any differently than someone who has cancer and wants to get insurance."

The legislation also prohibits insurers from using factors such as sexual orientation, age, sex and marital status in determining coverage or rates, because of concerns that they could be used to rule out persons thought to be in high-risk categories for AIDS, primarily homosexual men.

Insurance representatives argued that companies charge higher rates to persons who are shown to be more susceptible to other diseases through testing.

A committee report accompanying the bill said that current testing has not been proved accurate and reliable in determining who might develop AIDS.

During the five-year moratorium on rate differentials contained in the bill, the D.C. Public Health Commissioner is to decide which tests if any are reliable.

Between September 1980 and April 13, 1986, there have been 358 cases of AIDS reported in the District and 194 deaths from the disease.