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Corporate America faces AIDS, but some steps would be illegal

Over the last few years, corporate America has watched acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) take the lives of a growing number of employees. To date, the response of the vast majority of these companies has been to hold their breath and hope the disease goes away. But it hasn't, and now companies are taking the first steps to help their employees as well as themselves.

Yesterday, hundreds of executives met here to learn some basic facts about potentially the most troubling health problem to face them in decades. In the process, they learned how far they have to go in facing up to the disease; how much effect the disease will have on the bottom line; and what their legal and social obligations are to their employees.

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The cost of AIDS is growing faster than anyone projected. The federal and state governments will spend $600 million on low-income individuals eligible for treatment under medicaid, Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen told the audience. By 1992, the figure will be $2.5 billion, he estimates.

And that is only 40 percent of the cost. The rest of the treatment will be covered by private charity, personal funds, and plans like corporate health plans.

Corporate latitude in dealing with employees has been limited by the courts: for example, it is illegal to discriminate against employees with AIDS or to test for the disease. Thus, aside from developing a corporate policy for the treatment of AIDS, Dr. Bowen recommended employee education. ``Good morals,'' he said, may well be equated with ``your ability to do business.''

At this point, corporate awareness of the problem outstrips corporate action, according to a study released yesterday. The study, done jointly by Allstate Insurance Company (which also sponsored yesterday's conference) and Fortune magazine, surveyed chief executives and vice-presidents at a wide spectrum of companies.

The upshot, said Merle Sprinzen, Fortune's director of market research, is that ``it may be that companies will only address a problem when it hits home.''

Indeed, the sponsors indicate that only 20 percent of the companies have actually dealt with employees with AIDS. And while 64 percent say they are concerned about it, only 10 percent have developed written policies and another 10 percent are working on them.

The survey includes other findings:

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Larger companies tend to have more supportive policies than smaller companies.

Companies in the service sector are more supportive than companies in the industrial sector, because they have had more experience with employees with AIDS.

Companies in the Northeast and West, where the incidence of AIDS is much higher, tend to have more supportive policies than companies in the Midwest and South.

Dr. Sprinzen notes that corporate ignorance may get companies into legal hot water. ``Some of the actions the executives say their companies would take [toward AIDS-infected employees] are, in fact, illegal.''

While many employers would give employees time off for medical treatment (47 percent), or make some type of work accommodation to allow employees to work as long as possible (25 percent), there were some negatives. For example, 16 percent would try to get the employee to quit, 6 percent would fire the employee, and 5 percent would not promote the employee.

To help companies formulate their policies on AIDS, last October Allstate organized groups ranging from IBM and Sears to Harvard's School of Public Health and the Ford Foundation to study the major issues. It released its recommendations for corporate policies yesterday - ``a series of suggestions not commandments,'' Allstate Life Insurance chairman H.E. Lister noted.

Of the six task forces - human resources, medical issues, legal issues, government and legislative affairs, communications, and corporate philanthropy - the most helpful is probably legal analysis. Recent federal court decisions have given AIDS-affected employees more rights than many companies may be aware of.

The most important cases have held that employers should not test for the AIDS virus; that if they do test the results must be kept confidential; and that the rights of coworkers, for example, in getting an AIDS-infected employee transferred, are very limited.

This conference is only a first step in tackling the AIDS problem. But given the attendance it suggests that there will be many more steps like it in the future.

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