LONDON — The U.K. government and the insurance industry are at odds after a government advisory body on human genetics demanded a ban of at least two years on the use of genetic test results by insurers.
This conflicts with an industry code of practice, published last month, which said that while applicants for insurance will not be asked to take a test, they would be required to give existing test results to their insurance company.
In its report, "The Implications of Genetic Testing for Insurance," the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) said the information linking genetics and multifactorial disease is at too early a stage to make sound assessments of added risk. As a result, insurance companies should not be allowed to request genetic test results from people seeking life, health or other types of insurance policies.
The HGAC was set up by the government in December 1996 to advise on developments in human genetics. While it is not a statutory body, the government is likely to accept the advice, meaning there could be legislation to prevent the use of test results if the insurance industry does not agree to the ban.
The chairman of the HGAC, Colin Campbell, justified the ban, saying, "It is far too early to be able to reach any conclusions about how genetic testing can be used to predict life expectancy or the onset of ill health. Genetic testing is in its infancy and we have no body of evidence rigorous or robust enough on which to base important conclusions about when someone might die."
The report also spelled out the need for a "robust" appeals mechanism to handle cases where clients feel they have been unfairly treated over genetic testing issues. There is, it said, "a strong and persistent sense of unease among those who had provided genetic test results" about the way the results were interpreted.
The industry code of practice was issued by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), which represents 440 companies, accounting for around 95 percent of U.K. insurance businesses.
Association Chairman Peter Jacobs said the ABI had considered a moratorium on the use of test results. "This was not thought appropriate because there are already eight specific genetic tests which are reliable and which clearly demonstrate either an additional risk, or the absence of risk, in which case the consumer benefits by paying a standard premium," he said.
The ABI argued that not using results would leave insurers open to adverse selection, in which people whose test results show they may die early obtain cover at standard rates.
The HGAC, on the other hand, argued that the industry "does not have the information which would be needed to make actuarially sound use of genetic test results."
Results only become actuarially significant if they are connected to medical and epidemiological research that establishes what health and life-span estimates can be inferred from a given result.
While the ABI said it would lobby for a reversal of the ban, the HGAC said "the burden of proof to justify the lifting of any element of the moratorium should lie primarily with the industry."