AIDS IS NOW the leading cause of death for men between 21 and 44 in New York City. The epidemic is growing, and no cure or vaccine is yet in sight. The disease is particularly terrible because it strikes young people and is invariably fatal. While scientists continue work to conquer the plague, others must deal with different problems, some of them without precedent, that involve the care and treatment of AIDS patients. Public funds must be spent, not only on research, but also on health and social services for those afflicted. And difficult civil liberties questions must be considered in an area where individual rights and the public health are both at stake.

Next week, the D.C. Council will consider legislation concerning insurance for people who have been exposed to the AIDS virus. The bill -- a bad one, we believe -- would prohibit insurers from using the results of any test that detects the presence of AIDS antibodies. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, these tests are extremely accurate and while not everyone with antibodies will contract the disease, just as not every three-pack-a-day smoker will die of lung cancer, those who test positively are at great risk. The bill would even forbid a company representative to ask a person applying for insurance whether he has already taken such a test, and if so, what the test revealed. After five years, upon petition to the superintendent of insurance, and under certain conditions, a company might be granted permission to use these tests, but even then it could not refuse to sell a policy to someone who tests positive. The company could only ask the superintendent to permit a rate differential.

Do present insurance practices -- those that would be changed by this bill -- violate the civil liberties of those exposed to AIDS? No. Such patients are now treated in exactly the same way as those at risk from other diseases. Heavy smokers, the obese, those with abnormally high blood pressure or a family history of diabetes are all subject to inquiry about these facts and may have to pay higher premiums for health and life insurance. Insurers understandably want to treat AIDS in the same manner. They are not refusing to cover the disease under existing policies, nor do they plan to base an insurance decision on a single test for antibodies. Insurers simply want to be able to assess the risk they are assuming -- as they do for every applicant -- and set a price based on objective medical facts.

Rates for health and life insurance are now set on the assumption that people under 35 are not often sick and seldom die of illness. AIDS skews these assumptions, and unless information about the disease is allowed to be taken into consideration, cost shifting on a massive scale will occur. The gay community in this city has done a good job educating the public about the disease, helping to care for the victims and assisting them in coping with employment, landlord-tenant and government benefits problems. The pressure for special treatment from the insurance industry, however, is unreasonable and should be defeated.