Genetic testing: it’s the crystal ball of health predictions. Are you more likely to develop cancer, Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease later in life? With a few strokes of a cotton swab, you can have that information. And life insurers argue they should have it, too.
Genetic testing has been around since 1985 when biological material such as skin, hair, blood and other bodily fluids emerged as the most reliable physical evidence at a crime scene. Since then, genetic tests have been used to convict — and exonerate — countless individuals. They’re also used to determine paternity as some daytime television shows like to dramatize. Footballs used in the Super Bowl are even marked with DNA to prevent counterfeiting — just run a genetic test on it to see which one is the legit pigskin.
The use of genetic testing has spread from crime scenes and footballs and evolved from convicting and exonerating. It now allows a person to equip themselves with vital information about their bodies. They can find out whether they are more predisposed to certain health risks.
The life insurance implication
As voluntary genetic testing for disease has become more popular, so too have the laws aimed at preventing discrimination based on the results of such tests. In 2008, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination (GINA) Act was signed by President George W. Bush, effectively protecting Americans against discrimination from employers and health insurance companies based on genetic information. After 13 long years of debate in Congress, the bill passed, allowing people to take advantage of personalized medicine without the fear of discrimination.
But GINA applies only to health insurance; the law spares companies that sell life insurance, disability insurance and long-term care insurance (LTCI), effectively giving them the go-ahead to deny coverage based on a human’s genetics. Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, introduced GINA in the House back in 2007. Though pleased with the outcome of the bill, it has been reported that she knows the law still has gaps that need to be closed — and she has hinted that it’s something she aims to do. (Slaughter declined to comment on this story.)
Many feel that, as this type of testing becomes more popular, regulators will be forced to do something to prevent discrimination in the disability, long-term care and life insurance sectors.
“Most regulators are going to reach landing ground that says this cannot be used as a sole bar to qualification for life insurance,” said Daniel Gerber, chair of the Defense Research Institute’s (DRI) life, health and disability committee. “As genetic testing refines and says, ‘Listen, we can tell this person is going to have this disease and die within 10 years,’ that may act as a bar to insurability and the regulators may permit that. But if it is just a coding that says the person is predisposed [to a certain disease], I think regulators will eventually preclude insurance companies from just discarding that person.”
Life insurance agents can legally set a higher premium for a policy if their client is, say, a smoker or overweight or a Formula 1 racecar driver by trade. “You can decide to stop smoking, you can decide to change some life habits that alter cholesterol, but you can’t change your genetics,” said Gerber.
Life insurers could potentially take matters into their own hands and test each applicant’s genetics, much like they do now with blood, before writing a policy on their behalf. Though that process is not taking place currently, there is a path leading toward it, and trailing right behind would likely be regulations. “If the carriers try and do their own genetic testing, then there will absolutely be a need to legislate against life carriers using such testing to underwrite policies,” said Glenn Kantor co-founder and attorney at Kantor & Kantor, a Los Angeles-based law firm. “I think the carriers know that if they take that action, legislation will follow.”
But is it fair?
Those within the life insurance industry simply want an atmosphere of openness where there are no secrets in the application process. Life insurers stress that — as it has always been — in order to set fair premium levels, not only for current customers but for future ones as well, they need to be aware of the risks they will be assuming.