Should insurers have access to genetic tests?

by Nicolas Heffernan03 May 2015
Advisors are split on whether insurers should have access to consumer’s genetic tests.
Bob Howard, past president of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, think carriers should have access, equating a genetic test with an EKG or an MRI.

“It is essential to individual life and health insurance that the applicant and company have equal knowledge,” said Howard. “Helping those unfortunate enough to have a genetic disposition to illness is understandable and laudable, but allowing them to pay an unfairly low price is not in the public interest. We need a better solution.”

Unlike other countries such as the US, the U.K., and Japan, Canada has no legislation that protects consumers from having to disclose test results to employers and insurance companies, despite a promise by the federal government in 2013 to introduce protective measures.

Liberal Senator James Cowan tabled Bill S-201 that looked to protect Canadians from employers and insurers having access to genetic tests. But the proposed legislation was severely watered down after the Conservative-dominated human rights committee in the Senate voted to remove eight of the 11 clauses in S-201.

But the Canadian Office of the Privacy Commissioner contends the use of genetic test results is not justified and that insurers should not to use them in assessing risk.

Kevin Cahill, president and founder of Canadian Legacy Builder, asserts that claim is false.

“If that were true, then banks shouldn't be able to conduct a credit check to decide whether an individual should qualify for a mortgage,” he said. “If a proposed insured has completed testing and discussed it with their doctor, then insurers should have access to that same information. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

But not all advisors are of the same opinion. Chris Dewdney, financial security advisor at DWL Financial Services, argues allowing insurers access could set a dangerous precedent.

“Genetic makeup carries information of not only the applicant, but that of their parents, children, etc., based on their ethnic background, which may make them predisposed to certain diseases,” he said.

“Individuals have no control over their genetic makeup. Applicants might defer from having … advisable testing done for fear of being rated or denied insurance coverage, subsequently putting their own health at risk. The insurer [could] deny or price out candidates who would need the coverage the most and only select the healthiest, lowest-risk applicants.”



  • by Bruce_H_Palmer 2015-05-04 3:19:42 PM

    I do not believe DNA testing has any role in insurance underwriting, at least not at present.

    First, to state that our understanding of DNA and genetic predispositions and how they interact with lifestyle and environmental conditions is rudimentary is to be generous to our level of knowledge. Most of our understanding of the "link" between DNA and various illnesses is really a recognition of correlation and not evidence of causation. Even when we know there is causation, we do not know how that is affected by the environment, by our overall state of health, by age, by diet and exercise, etc. In other words, decisions made or affected by DNA tests are mostly conclusions drawn from poorly understood evidence. Perhaps some day we will actually be able to understand causation and even have treatment (as was recently attempted, unsuccessfully, at Sun Yat Sen University in China), but the day is not yet here.

    Second, to equate DNA testing with Credit Scoring is ludicrous: one is within our control and one is not.

    Third, much of the "factual" information contained in DNA tests is already available through family history questions. Knowing my mother dies at age 55 with a bad heart or that my dad had diabetes is information acquired far less expensively and more reliably than a DNA test.

    Finally -- at least for this comment -- the entire idea of insurance is premiums of the many paying losses of the few. As we continually work towards insuring only those with no chance of loss, we increasingly move away from the basic tenet of insurance (and move away from actually being needed): the idea is we transfer risk from individuals to the insurance company, which insures a large enough pool to ensure that we can all sleep well, plan our finances, and be protected from the illness and accidents that befall me.

  • by Georgetown Guy 2015-05-08 1:50:31 PM

    Bruce captured everything that both can and needs to be said on the matter