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"Insurance companies say if they do not ask for test could bankrupt them"
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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 21:04 GMT
Insurers against genetic test ban
Genetic test
MPs fear people will be put off having tests
The NHS could be flooded with patients seeking genetic tests if insurance companies are banned from using the technology, MPs have heard.

Insurance company executives told MPs that banning them from using genetic test results to decide if they should provide life cover for individuals could cripple the health service.

A moratorium might encourage ... a wholesale increase in demand for genetic tests which I do not necessarily think the NHS will be able to cope with

Mike Urmston, Norwich Union
They suggested that imposing a short-term ban would encourage patients to find out if they were genetically susceptible to diseases, like Alzheimer's, and buy insurance before any ban ended.

Executives told the Common's science and technology committee that their use of genetic test results had so far benefited policyholders.

Public concern

But Dr Michael Clark, chairman of the committee, said there was increasing public concern about insurance companies using the technology to decide whether to provide cover for individuals.

He suggested that the insurance industry may prefer to impose a blanket ban on using genetic tests on themselves as a way of heading off government action.

However, Mike Urmston, Norwich Union's chief actuary, warned: "A moratorium might encourage ... a wholesale increase in demand for genetic tests which I do not necessarily think the NHS will be able to cope with.

"People will want to get tests while the moratorium is in place and get insurance before it runs out."

Along with Keith Beddell-Pearce, executive director of the Prudential, and Co-Operative Insurance general manager Martin Clarke, Mr Urmston defended the voluntary code of practice as the best way of controlling use of tests.

Voluntary code

MPs have expressed fears that the voluntary code is enabling companies to use three tests that have not been officially approved.

However, Mr Urmston said his company would make amends to anyone who had seen their premiums rise or were refused cover on the basis of these unapproved tests if they are found to be unreliable.

Scientist carries out a genetic test
Scientists are learning more about hereditary diseases
He defended the use of the tests. He told MPs that his company had assessed applications from 30 people who later went on to have genetic tests. Of those tested, 23 had seen their premiums improved, he said.

"What is actually happening is that the insurance industry is able to accept more people on standard rates," he told the committee.

'Flexible rules'

He told MPs that the voluntary code provided more "flexible" rules for governing the use of what was a very fast-changing technology.

The executives added that any mandatory code, issued for example by the government, would have to be constantly revised and updated.

The current code states that companies cannot demand tests and that they are not required for policies that are worth less than 100,000 or for new mortgages.

However, companies can, in some circumstances, ask individuals for the results of tests if they have already had one.

The executives confirmed that in some cases individuals will be denied cover because of the results of their tests.

They suggested that this problem could be overcome through a cross-industry initiative which would guarantee cover to everyone.

Overcome the problem

Mr Beddell-Pearce suggested that a system of car insurance used in the 1930s - whereby anyone refused insurance by three companies could go back to the first firm approached and demand cover - could be adapted to meet today's needs.

The industry could provide cover from a pool fund, he suggested.

Genetic tests enable scientists to pinpoint genes that can make an individual susceptible to a specific disease.

In many cases, these diseases are hereditary and some people elect to have a test so that they can, if necessary, seek early medical treatment for the condition.

A person carrying the gene which may trigger a disease will not necessarily develop that illness but nevertheless, some insurers will only offer a very expensive policy or none at all.

MPs are concerned that this could deter people from taking tests or create a group of people without access to basic financial services.

The British Medical Association has said it has received anecdotal evidence that some companies were flouting the code and pressuring people to take tests.

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See also:

07 Feb 01 | Health
Genetic tests 'ripe for abuse'
22 Jan 01 | Business
The price of having the wrong genes
27 Nov 00 | Health
Genetic data 'insurance fear'
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