Business

John Hancock to offer life insurance to people with HIV

John Hancock Insurance said Friday that it will offer life insurance to people living with HIV, becoming the second major US insurance company to offer the coverage to a long-excluded population.

The Boston-based insurer said applicants between the ages of 30 and 65 who meet certain criteria will be able to buy up to $2 million in coverage.

Applicants will have to show a “favorable and stable clinical course,” including strict adherence to antiretroviral drugs and the absence of immunosuppression or another chronic disease, the company said.

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“These are the same products we’re offering to the rest of our customers,” John Hancock’s chief underwriter, Susan Ghalili, said in an interview. “This is a very small step in the right direction for people who haven’t been able to get life insurance. It’s not that it’s a big market, but it’s a relevant market for us. It’s an underserved market.”

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For decades, HIV patients were denied life insurance coverage, but that is beginning to change with advancements in treatment that have turned the virus from a death sentence when it first appeared in the early 1980s into a manageable condition.

“I suspect more and more companies will be doing this,” said Michael Kaplan, president of AIDS United, a patient advocacy group in Washington, D.C., who said most people now on antiretroviral drugs live well into their 70s. “As someone who tested positive [for HIV] in 1992, I can tell you none of us could get coverage back then. Folks were dropping.”

John Hancock made its announcement in conjunction with its Toronto-based parent company, Manulife Financial Corp., which becomes the first Canadian health plan to make life insurance available to people with HIV.

Manulife paid $10.3 billion to acquire John Hancock in 2004.

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Late last year, Prudential Financial Inc., of Newark, became the first major US insurer to offer the coverage.

More than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and hundreds of thousands manage the condition through antiretroviral drugs. Of those, John Hancock will compete with Prudential in a potential insurance market estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 people. John Hancock currently has about 2 million life insurance customers.

Health plans are becoming more open to insuring people with the virus, which can cause the life-threatening acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, not only because of the success of antiretroviral therapies but also because technology advances enable insurers to better track health and longevity trends among HIV patients.

“It’s based almost entirely on data, such as survival rates for people who have been on certain types of medication,” said Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based trade group. “Certainly the disease has morphed from a terminal illness to a chronic disease. The life spans are a lot closer to normal, and you might have enough data on people in this situation to take the risk.”

Weisbart said the business of selling life insurance to individuals has been struggling for the past decade because fewer younger people have been purchasing policies than in past generations.

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“This is a very competitive business,” he said, “and companies like the Hancock and the Pru are looking for new policyholders who will buy life insurance that’s hopefully been priced appropriately. They’re saying, ‘We’re open for business.’ ”

John Hancock’s Ghalili said it’s been difficult for life insurers to price their products for HIV patients until now. “Advances in medicine and adherence to treatment have helped us,” she said. “We’re looking at HIV as another chronic condition, like diabetes or coronary artery disease.”

John Hancock said that offering life insurance was part of its “progressive approach and commitment to its customers.”

Kaplan, at AIDS United, said people with HIV welcome the chance to buy insurance. He added, “You can’t help be a little resentful that for decades we were looked at as too great a risk to cover. But we’re getting to the right place.”

Robert Weisman
can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.