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Insurers in trouble over gene tests

2 August 1999
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 19
The insurance industry is in trouble again. In the field of genetics, in particular, insurers have traditionally had a reputation for putting financial gain before ethics. This week's news that insurers are using information from different genetic tests in insurance policies has been regarded by many as no great surprise.

Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, has stepped into the fray by warning the insurance industry that unless it falls into line with government thinking, the government will enact legislation banning insurance companies from using information from genetic tests.

The picture, however, is rather confused. It seems that the insurance industry, at least in the shape of the Association of British Insurers (ABI), is willing to be regulated. In its revised code of practice on genetic testing, the ABI states that its members will abide by rulings made by the government advisory group, the Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC), when it becomes operational. If a test currently used by insurers is not passed by GAIC as reliable and valid for insurance purposes, the ABI says its members will retrospectively amend policies already taken out and will make all efforts to contact those people turned down for insurance on the basis of the test.

But if the insurance industry is so keen to be regulated, why is it not prepared to wait until a regulatory framework has been put in place? The ABI seems to be operating on the assumption that genetic tests currently being used by its members will indeed be ratified by GAIC in the future. If they aren't, the ABI will have to backtrack. But if they are, the insurance industry will have been benefiting from government policy before it even existed.

As for the government, rather than threatening to the bring the insurance industry into line by introducing a statutory ban on the use of genetic information, perhaps its time would be better spent getting on with setting up the Genetics and Insurance Committee. Then we will be able to see whether the insurance industry really is willing to abide by its rules.

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