Insurer Takes the Lead in Bringing Businesses Into AIDS Education

Times Staff Writer

They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. agrees.

The Newport Beach insurer is proving its point by promoting the cause of AIDS education.

"We are interested in AIDS as an insurer, but we are also interested in it because we want to be good corporate citizens," said Walter Gerken, Pacific Mutual's chairman. "At this point AIDS hasn't made much impact on our company, but it's the potential that could be a problem."

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 32,800 people have been diagnosed as having AIDS, while another 1.5 million people may be infected with the virus. By 1991, the CDC said, the number of diagnosed AIDS cases is expected to grow to a staggering 270,000.

By that time, the annual cost of the AIDS epidemic to the life and health insurance industries will reach into the billions of dollars, said Debbie Chase, a spokeswoman for the American Council of Life Insurance. Health insurers alone can expect to pay about $1 billion a year between now and 1991, she said.

Workplace Effort

Especially alarming, Gerken said, are predictions by some experts that AIDS is shifting from a predominantly homosexual disease to one that threatens others as well. Stepped-up AIDS education--including in the workplace--is necessary to avert a catastrophe, he said.

For instance, Pacific Mutual on Monday will host a conference of top Orange County executives to discuss the widening scope of the AIDS epidemic and what employers can do to fight the deadly disease.

"AIDS is not a problem of the workplace, but the workplace is a good place to educate people about the disease," Gerken said. "From an employer's standpoint there is tremendous potential in educating people about the disease."

And, despite his view that abstinence is the best defense against AIDS, Gerken said that AIDS education must include information on the so-called "safe-sex" techniques, touted as a means of preventing the transmission of the disease.

'Dispense With Niceties'

"I'm sensitive to the moral issue . . . but we have got to dispense with the niceties," he said. "I'm for putting a high moral pitch on it, but we can't stop there."

So far, about 30 executives have agreed to attend Monday's conference, including J. Robert Fluor II, a vice president with Fluor Corp.; Thomas Nielsen, vice chairman of the Irvine Co. and William Lane, a partner with the Trammell Crow Co.

The conference will include a presentation on AIDS by Kenneth Kizer, state director of health services.

Within a few weeks, Pacific Mutual plans to host a second meeting at which delegates from the companies involved will begin to develop AIDS education programs and the means to implement them, Gerken said.

Pacific Mutual itself will offer suggestions to the executives who want to devise AIDS education programs, but "we are hoping that the employers will come up with the ideas themselves," Gerken said.

The conference Monday is just the latest step in Pacific Mutual's campaign to fight AIDS. The company has been promoting AIDS education on Orange County's college campuses for over a year. Since late 1985, the Pacific Mutual Foundation has passed out about $60,000 in AIDS-related grants.

In addition to the nine local colleges--including UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton--that have each received $1,500 grants, the foundation has made donations to the National AIDS Network, the AIDS Services Foundation and the Shanti Foundation, among other groups.

"In Orange County, I would say that Pacific Mutual is the most prominent and outstanding company that is addressing the AIDS epidemic," said Werner Kuhn, executive director of the AIDS Response Program of Orange County. "They know it's good corporate policy."

Despite Pacific Mutual's efforts, Orange County's business community as a whole lags behind the rest of the nation in recognizing the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic and the threat it poses to worker productivity, Kuhn said.

"I would say that in Orange County the corporate and business community is a year or two behind other areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in addressing the issue," he said.

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