The Fight for HIV Travel Insurance Cover:
How a ten year battle to get travel cover for HIV patients changed the face of medical travel insurance
Lots of people find it easy to get travel insurance. But for others – and that may include you – it isn’t so easy. Medical conditions, especially serious or acute conditions, can send the cost of travel insurance sky high. Lots of insurers won’t touch some conditions, while loading others with premiums that make the cost of travel nigh on impossible. This leaves them facing the prospect of travelling uninsured – and risking their homes or life savings to pay for medical costs - or paying through the nose for something many of us take for granted: peace of mind.
But imagine what it must have been like in the early 1980s for someone who had been diagnosed as having HIV or AIDS trying to get travel insurance, or any other kind of insurance for that matter.
It just wasn’t going to happen.
In the early days of AIDS and HIV fear abounded. No one knew much about the disease or where it came from. All most people knew, at first, was that it was transmitted sexually or through contact with blood and bodily fluids and that it was prevalent in gay men. It was stigmatised and gay men were targeted, both here in the UK and abroad. But why shouldn’t they enjoy travel, mortgages, car insurance? Should they have their security taken away from them at such a frightening and uncertain time?
Why shouldn’t people who are ill enjoy the same basic privileges as the rest of us?
It was something that incensed Suzanne Rothwell. At the time she was a partner at a small insurance broker in Penzance, Cornwall. One of her close friends was one of the first men to be diagnosed with HIV in the UK. As any concerned friend would, she cared, got involved and ended up fighting a ten year battle to get HIV treated like any other medical condition by insurers.
"Not one insurance company wanted to even sit down and talk to me.”
“My husband and I went on holiday with a friend who was HIV positive,” explains Suzanne. “He couldn’t get travel cover. But what if he had to cancel his holiday? What if we wanted to cancel our holiday because he was ill? There was no chance of any insurer covering us. They saw the risk as too great. I was fuming. I started to put together facts and figures to put to insurers to see if I could get a policy wording that would cover it. To say that my proposals were not accepted would be an understatement. Not one insurance company wanted to even sit down and talk to me.”
But it didn’t stop Suzanne.
"Eventually, after 10 long years, I found a company to listen to what I had to say."
Over the next few years she lost a lot of friends and acquaintances to HIV and AIDS. She became a founding member of Body Positive South West and, as a result, became more aware of the day to day problems associated with the condition. At that time there was no medication and definitely no cure on the horizon.
“From my work in insurance I could see that the policy wording on all kind of polices was loaded against people suffering from HIV or AIDS,” explains Suzanne. “The industry viewed every touch point of anyone’s life as a risk that was too great to bear. Ignorance and distrust were rife. Household and motor policies were loaded against anyone suffering from HIV or AIDS. What would happen if someone caught HIV from your bathroom? What about if you had a car accident and someone caught HIV from helping you? Could a claim be made against your insurers?”
"I had a file kept under lock and key so no names were disclosed to the rest of my staff.”
“As the years went on and more and more was being learned about the condition I kept nibbling away at insurance companies. Eventually, after 10 long years, I managed to find a company that was interested and would listen to what I had to say. We negotiated terms and discussed screening the condition and, in around 2001, we were finally able to offer travel insurance for people with HIV / AIDS. It was a ground breaking moment, but it wasn’t easy.”
“There was so much hostility towards people with HIV/AIDS that the screening was very much cloak and dagger stuff. I was the only one that could incept the policy and I had a special file kept under lock and key so that no names were ever disclosed to the rest of my staff.”
"We had no abuse, and many people popped in to show their support.”
“At the beginning I was worried about my family and asked them if they minded me doing it and the publicity that went with it. People with HIV were having their houses daubed with paint. There was a lot of hostility. However, the boys were fully supportive so I went ahead. I was interviewed on TV and radio. Happily we had no abuse, and many people popped into the office to show their support.”
The legacy of Suzanne’s work lives on today, even though many of those she hoped to help did not make it. The way HIV is screened nowadays stems from Suzanne’s original proposal, with CD4 and viral load counts being the criteria that quotes are based on.
Even so, it took a while before the rest of the market came on board. Sub agents, who were selling the policies through HIV charities, soon saw there was something in it and developed their own policies with different insurers – even though they use the same type of screening.
"Offering medical policies, even just 15 years ago, was not the science it is today."
Suzanne explains how the policy – and the specialist knowledge she gained from working so hard on it - helped to change the course of the company: “Being able to offer cover for people with HIV put us on the map as being specialists in travel insurance covering medical conditions. We were already doing travel insurance in a small way, but being able to cover HIV increased our profile and enabled us to cover more medical conditions. Offering medical policies, even as recently as 15 years ago, was not the science it is today. Offering cover was very much gut instinct and there was nothing like the screening questions that are used today. In the early days HIV/AIDS was very much a life threatening condition.”
“Thank goodness things have changed now and most people can live a full and long life with the help of medication.”
Today World First continue to offer medical travel cover for people with HIV and AIDS and cover 1000s more conditions besides, including hard to insure illnesses and chronic conditions.
In total, over the years, Suzanne has lost 67 friends and acquaintances to HIV / AIDS.