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Government furious at use of gene tests by insurers

2 August 1999
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 19

Life insurance companies may be forced to stop using the results of genetic tests if they continue to flout a voluntary agreement not to use genetic screening before government approval.

Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, has written to the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to make clear that the government is prepared to introduce a statutory ban on insurers using information from genetic tests. Ministers believe that the industry has broken a deal - struck last year - that companies would not use the results of genetic tests until the tests have been formally approved by the Genetics and Insurance Committee. Lord Sainsbury has demanded an explanation by Tuesday. Members of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) had wanted a two-year moratorium on testing but were prepared to agree to a voluntary agreement. Both Lord Sainsbury and Tessa Jowell, the Health Minister, had expressed their concerns that this voluntary ban was not being observed at a meeting with the ABI in May. Now legislation may be the only option.

An ABI code of practice currently allows its firms to ask for the results of a test if one has been taken - though not to order a customer to take a test. It limits the gene test question to eight conditions, including tests for Alzheimer's, hereditary breast cancer, hereditary colon cancer and Huntington's disease. The only concession, however, is for people seeking life insurance of less than £100,000 associated with a mortgage. They will be allowed to refuse to say whether they have shown up positive for one of the conditions.

Professor Martin Bobrow, a medical geneticist at Cambridge University and a former member of the HGAC, said he feared patients would not come forward for testing and treatment of these conditions because the results might jeopardise their chances of life insurance cover.

Richard Hobb, head of life insurance at the ABI said insurers decided not to wait for the Genetics and Insurance Committee to decide because it was not known how long this would take.

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