Electronic Genetics Newsletter

Genetic Testing and the Insurance Industry

Prin. of  Modern Genetics Human Heredity

Shelly Cummings

The insurance industry is keeping a watchful eye on the discoveries that are being made daily as a result of the Human Genome Project. The localization and identification of disease-causing genes in the human genome has lead to the availability of genetic testing for these conditions. In some instances, this testing can be done prior to the development of any signs or symptoms of the disease. This means that physicians will no longer have to rely on a strong family history of a disease, but instead can read the message encoded by an individual's DNA.

The knowledge gained from genetic testing at the present can be as dangerous as a double-edged sword. If insurance agencies obtained access to an individual's genetic test results, they could use this information to set higher premiums or elect not to cover certain procedures related to that condition. This form of discrimination is just an alternative form of discrimination that is already practiced by insurance agencies. However, discrimination is the name of the game in the insurance industry. Currently, the insurance companies label people as high or low risk based on several factors including gender, age, race, occupation, and medical history. Insurers feel that since genetic testing is part of an individual's medical history, then information gleamed from these tests, should be available to the insurer.

If insurers stopped discriminating against the elderly and the less healthy and offered equal rates to all ages, the old would sign up in droves and the young would stay away. Experts think that with the advent of genetic testing, the underwriting of insurance policies based on age and gender would continue, but premiums would escalate as people, identified as high risk, suddenly begin taking out larger policies and underwriting losses grow. Rates could get so high that healthy young adults would go uncovered. With this large portion of the population out of the insurance pool, the underwriting losses and premiums would go even higher.

State legislatures in California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Minnesota have imposed restrictions on insurers who want to use the results of DNA testing. Opponents to these restrictions feel that if the government thinks high-risk people should be entitled to low-cost insurance, then the government should subsidize it rather than force the insurance agencies and the healthier part of the population to do the subsidizing.

This is one of the many dilemmas that is disturbing about genetic testing. The legal, social, and ethical implications of DNA testing are constantly being reviewed at the state and federal levels. Whether it is p.c. (politically correct) to have genetic testing is not the question. Whether genetic questioning is P.C.(politically correct) or not is really not the question. The real dilemma facing us is how we choose to use the potentially valuable information that we gain from DNA testing.

Multidisciplinary endeavors of the Human Genome Project are discussed in Chapter 15 of Principles of Modern Genetics. The implications of genetic testing are discussed in Chapter 19 of Human Heredity. The paper on DNA testing and the insurance industry is: Ross, P., 1995. "Is DNA p.c.?" Forbes. October 9. 118.

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