National insurance industry groups are conducting an expensive local media blitz and lobbying effort to try to defeat a bill coming before the D.C. City Council today that would prohibit companies from using AIDS antibodies tests to deny health or life insurance coverage.
The local gay community has responded with less visible but intensive telephone lobbying of council members in support of the bill, and some gay activists are predicting the industry's high-decibel campaign will backfire.
Both sides say the bill would go further in its protections of persons exposed to the AIDS virus than similar legislation approved elsewhere, most notably California and Wisconsin, and some say the precedent-setting aspect of it is what has attracted the strong opposition from national industry groups.
The protections of the bill would not extend to persons who have AIDS.
"Because the bill is comprehensive, [the industry] thinks it will be used as a model in other states, and I think it will be, too," said Steve Smith, former president of the Gay Activists Alliance and spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Committee on AIDS Issues, a coalition of local gay groups.
The bill would prohibit companies from denying a person health or life insurance coverage on the basis of tests that indicate exposure to the virus that causes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. For five years, it would prevent companies from charging a higher premium to someone who has had a positive test for exposure to virus.
At the end of five years, companies could petition the D.C. superintendent of insurance to allow higher rates, which could be granted if the superintendent had determined that a reliable test is available by which to assess higher health risks.
Gay activists have said that most persons who test positively for exposure to the virus do not actually develop AIDS and that the test for exposure has been used unfairly to deny coverage to some individuals.
Council members and their staffs said yesterday that the bill probably would receive preliminary approval today by the full council, but they were less certain of the outcome of votes on some possible last-minute amendments being proposed by the insurance industry.
The American Council of Life Insurance and the Health Insurance Association of America have spent about $200,000 on advertising that started last week, said spokeswoman Debbie Chase. This included full-page ads in The Washington Post, Washington Times, Afro-American, New Observer, Capital Spotlight and Washington Informer; radio spots on WMAL-AM/FM and WMZQ-AM/FM, and television ads on channels 5, 7 and 20.
The industry groups have predicted that the bill, if passed, would result in higher insurance premiums for District residents or in insurance companies refusing to write policies in the city.
"Insurance premiums are normally based on risk -- the lower the risk, the lower the premium," says the radio ad. "To keep premiums fair, insurance companies must be allowed to test for the risk of AIDS, as they do for other life-threatening factors like heart trouble and heavy smoking."
Since those exposed to the virus would pay the same premiums as others, healthy persons would have to pay higher rates to subsidize the added risk, the ads say.
Supporters of the bill have said that currently available tests that show an exposure to the virus are not good indicators that a person will get AIDS. Statistics show that about 20 percent of people who test positive eventually develop AIDS.
They have charged that insurance companies want to use the tests to discriminate against persons who may not have any greater health risk than others.
But Chase said the bill "ties our hands . . . for this one illness," unlike diseases in which a potential high risk is determined by the industry.
The newspaper ads listed the names and phone numbers of City Council members and urged District residents to voice opposition to the measure, sponsored by council member John Ray (D-At Large).
After the ads started running last week, however, gay activist groups told their members and supporters to call council members to register their support.
"The ads have galvanized the local gay community," said Ron Najman, media director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke's office received more than 100 calls on the issue yesterday. The calls were running 3 to 1 in favor of the bill, a staff aide said. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) got more calls against the bill than in favor, but at Ray's office the calls were almost all in favor, according to aides.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she had received hundreds of calls since last week, about two-thirds in support of the bill.
"The insurance companies got the gay community on the phone," she said. Schwartz said she supports the legislation.