The Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the UK's human genetics watchdog, will be considering the use of genetic test results by insurers at its open meeting in London this week. The use of such information for policies worth less than £500,000 for life insurance, and £300,000 for other types of policy, is currently discouraged by a five-year industry moratorium. This ban, imposed by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), is due to expire in November 2006. When it meets on 11 February, the HGC will be considering ways of resolving the moratorium as well as other issues including genetic databases, reproductive decision-making and genetic profiling of newborn babies.
The potential use of genetic test results by insurance companies has triggered concerns that families affected by genetic disorders will face unfair discrimination when applying for policies. The moratorium followed a decision by the UK Department of Health's Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC) to allow insurers to use test results for the rare genetic condition Huntington's disease for life insurance. According to the latest GAIC annual report, insurance companies have all complied with the ban. However, Dr Helen Wallace, of the pressure group GeneWatch UK, has recently called for the moratorium to be turned into a law. Her comments came in response to a new study carried out by health economists at the University of East Anglia, who argued that insurers should have access to all types of medical information, including genetic test results.
One proposed solution to the problem of genetic discrimination is the so-called 'shared risk' scheme, in which the amount insurers can charge for life cover is limited. For example, someone affected by a genetic condition wanting £100,000 of cover for a mortgage might get £75,000 from an insurer and £25,000 from the shared-risk scheme. But Alastair Kent, an HGC member and director of the Genetic Interest Group, questions who would put money into the shared-risk scheme: 'There have been discussions with insurers as to whether to look to the government as underwriter of last resort or whether insurers would be prepared to pay' he said. Insurers have bought into the 'hype' about the predictive powers of genetics 'in a wider range of situations than is actually the case' he added.