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The BBC's Pallab Ghosh reports
"It's now possible to test for hundreds of inherited disorders"
 real 28k

Monday, 20 March, 2000, 17:11 GMT
Tests spark fears of genetic underclass
DNA graphic
Tests will reveal predisposition to disease
The UK Government is considering allowing insurance companies to use genetic testing to assess a person's risk of inheriting a serious illness.

It means that people with a family history of certain conditions could face higher insurance premiums.

Civil rights groups fear the move could create an underclass of people unable to obtain cover.

One opponent of the wider use of genetic testing said it was part of a "terrifying trend" that would lead to a culture of "cherry picking".

It is a terrifying trend that will lead to a culture of cherry picking

Ivan Massow
Millionaire businessmen Ivan Massow, who set up his own insurance company for gay people when he discovered they were being charged higher premiums, told BBC News Online the tests were wide open to abuse.

He said: "It will open the door to insurance companies picking off the people they want to insure and ignoring the others."

He said the longer-term trend could be to have special rates for the "genetically pure".

The entrepreneur said gay men are already offered a cheaper premium by some companies if they are prepared to take an HIV test and test negative.

He said the logical next step was for insurers to offer someone a better rate if they were prepared to voluntarily take approved genetic tests and came out clean.

Test regulation

The government set up the Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC) last year following concerns over the possible inappropriate use of genetic tests by insurers or employers.

Ivan Massow
Ivan Massow: Higher rate for genetically impure
Some genetic tests are already used by the insurance industry, in that people who have chosen to have them are asked to provide information about the results.

A spokesman from the Department of Health said the GAIC is assessing the reliability of around 10 genetic tests for illnesses such as breast cancer and cystic fibrosis.

Once the review is completed, later this year, the GAIC will advise ministers who are to make decisions on the use of those tests within areas like the insurance industry.

But he said ministers have not yet made any decisions and he denied newspaper reports that insurers will be able to ask those with a family history of disease to take a test.

Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) also denied reports that the industry planned to introduce genetic tests as an insurance requirement.

He said insurers had "no plans to ask anybody to have a genetic test, regardless of their family history".

If there is evidence that someone might develop a disease, however sad that may be, we have to take that evidence into account

Mary Francis, Association of British Insurers
He said the issue under discussion was "in what circumstances results from genetic tests that people had chosen to have off their own bat, should be made available to insurance companies".

He said premiums would not automatically go up for positive tests as other factors would be looked at, like an individual's treatment and their lifestyle.

But Mary Francis, also of the ABI, admitted: "If there is evidence that someone might develop a disease, however sad that may be, we have to take that evidence into account."

Higher premiums

Insurance premiums are traditionally weighted according to risk. Consumer groups say a positive test for a life-threatening illness could increase premiums dramatically.

Melanie Green of the Consumer's Association said they were concerned that high premiums or exclusive policies may leave some people unable to get insurance at all.

She told BBC Online this was particularly worrying at a time "when people are being asked to provide more and more for their own welfare".

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16 Sep 99 | Sheffield 99
Fears of genetic underclass unfounded
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