Money: If the genes don't fit...
Insurance might be determined by genetic tests, warns Nic Cicutti
Saturday 22 February 1997
But after this week, the prospect of a complete about-turn in the relationship between insurers and insured offers itself up instead. The potential for a new "insurance underclass", unable to obtain cover because genetic tests reveal the possibility of a particular disease, suddenly exists in the wake of a new policy statement by the insurers' trade body, the Association of British Insurers (ABI).
The ABI this week announced that henceforth it will require anyone who has had a genetic test to reveal the findings to his or her insurer.
Its decision, presented as merely the distillation of existing practice, carries with it the potential for thousands of people to be told that the life cover, pension protection or health insurance they are seeking will either be denied to them or will cost considerably more to buy.
The ABI's statement was couched in a concessionary manner: prospective policyholders will not be required - yet - to take out compulsory tests when they apply for insurance cover.
New applicants for life insurance up to pounds 100,000 linked to buying a home, such as mortgage endowments, will see the results of any genetic testing disregarded even if they are to the detriment of the applicant.
Moreover, declared Tony Baker, the deputy director-general of the ABI, companies will be able to decide for themselves whether they wish to improve on the basic concessions made by his trade organisation.
"A number of companies have indicated that they will be building on the statement because their own circumstances will allow them to go further," he said.
Cornhill, one such company, immediately announced that the pounds 100,000 "disregard" of any genetic test result would be applied to any type of insurance, not just related to home purchase.
Virgin Direct has pledged to go further. It will not ask life insurance applicants for the results of any genetic tests, regardless of the sum insured.
Standard Life, the UK's biggest insurer, is going even further. The company said this week that for the foreseeable future it would not seek the result of any genetic tests from policyholders.
Noticeably, however, neither Virgin nor Standard Life is able to commit itself in perpetuity to this policy. Indeed, the ABI's own statement last week has a very limited time-frame of two years, after which period it will be reviewed again.
Central to the unwillingness to look further ahead than this is the changing nature of genetic testing itself. The science is currently at a very early stage. In the past two decades or so, a number of genetic tests have been available to identify a range of diseases. Doctors can already diagnose the most common single gene defects such as muscular dystrophy.
Up to now people have taken the tests if there is evidence of genetic disorder in their family. Companies had the right to ask for the results of such tests, although their relative lack of sophistication and the fact that they could be applied to so few diseases meant that there was little pressure on them to consider the issue in more depth.
All that has changed as the possibility of developing new "multi-factorial" tests opens up. These would be far more accurate in determining a person's predisposition to certain illnesses, as well as diagnosing their potential life expectancy. Experts say it will soon be possible to predict the risk of more common disorders such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, while heart disease and cancer may only be a few years away.
The dilemma of such successful testing, however, is that insurance companies fear they could be hit by policyholders who, aware of their potentially low life expectancy, use the knowledge of the results from their genetic tests to obtain vast amounts of cover for themselves.
Insurers argue that they could be selected by people who are more at risk. In turn, this would raise premiums for all policyholders, undermining the "principle of good faith on which insurance is based", as the ABI describes the choleric attitudes the insured usually feel towards their companies.
Conversely, geneticists and other experts argue people might be deterred from taking tests if they believe this could reduce the availability of insurance or raise the cost of cover. In particular, where life insurance is usually a standard demand by lenders, people could be denied a mortgage on their test results.
A British Medical Association spokeswoman argues: "We are worried about the extent to which genetic information, which can be extremely complex, could be misinterpreted.
"We are very pleased that the ABI has clearly stated that they will not be asking anyone to take a genetic test when they apply for life insurance.
"We remain worried about the increasing use of people's health information for non-health issues and would be concerned if people were discouraged from finding out more about their health needs because of fears about the social implications."
Insurers are keen to reassure us. The ABI promises that its members will treat all genetic information in a confidential, sensitive and responsible way. It has appointed Professor Sandy Raeburn, a leading geneticist at Nottingham University, to sit on its genetics committee, which will oversee the insurers' code of conduct.
All information passed to insurers by prospective policyholders will be analysed to see whether it contains information that might be used to determine the degree of risk that subsequently arises in relation to the outcome predicted by the test.
In this way, insurers hope to avoid a repeat of the late-80s AIDs debacle. Then, many companies asked questions about HIV tests and general lifestyle on their application forms. Cover was then denied to those who said they had taken a test, or premiums massively increased.
Years later, mortality rates showed that people were far less at risk than had been thought, by which time they had already paid through the nose for their cover.
Despite emollient words, the prospect of a similarly large group of people being discriminated against because of tests is there and is increasing. Genetic testing can only grow in importance and accuracy, with dire consequences for those most at risk.
Genetic facts at a glance
Genetic tests can predict a range of diseases, including Huntingdon's Chorea, and single-gene defects.
Scientists believe they will soon be able to have multi-factorial genetic tests which can accurately predict the likelihood of cancer and heart disease, among others.
Insurers worry that they may be targeted by people who insure against them without disclosing test results.
But scientists argue that tough disclosure rules may prevent people from taking the tests altogether.
The industry says it will disregard genetic tests, even if negative, on life cover for mortgage applications up to pounds 100,000.
Some companies go further, but warn they cannot sustain this indefinitely, as new tests become known.
17 April 2015 06:00 PM
23 April 2015 12:00 AM
Experts disagree about the 7% increase over the past year
22 April 2015 07:29 AM
Too many mortgages are being sold with misleading gimmicks
21 April 2015 09:54 AM
The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in 2014
21 April 2015 12:00 AM
The average quote for a buildings and contents policy has fallen by 3.6 per cent
10 April 2015 07:00 PM
15 April 2015 12:56 PM
Joining Barclays Blue Rewards costs £3 a month but then lets customers in for handouts of up to £15 a month
15 April 2015 07:27 AM
A charity is urging anyone struggling financially to see if they could get help from the state
13 April 2015 11:39 AM
Video: With an election looming, a hung parliament could hit sterling
03 April 2015 08:00 PM
03 April 2015 08:00 PM
02 April 2015 01:14 PM
Video: Tom McPhail, head of pensions at Hargreaves Lansdown, says May's outcome could alter your pension
30 March 2015 04:22 PM
Video: Simon Read talks to Fidelity's Tom Stevenson
Will your credit card rewards be scrapped following new EU rules on charges?
What would happen if you put a statistician in a casino with £1m?
Simon Read: 'The fight must go on over equality on expat pensions'
More people are switching current accounts – but what do the figures mean?
Pension freedoms: How to deal with cold calls from scammers
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 4 The most powerful passports in the world
- 5 Chinese student carries disabled friend to school every day for three years
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
iJobs Money & Business
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...
Day In a Page
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B, subject to change of use permissions.
A former period coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
This four-bedroom home has exposed brick chimneys and a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining - the doors open to the patio and garden.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with grounds that span to approximately 2.5 acres, as well as two large patio areas and a double garage.
This four-bedroom cottage is a Grade II-listed town house, well-located for the thriving market town of Nailsworth.
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a stunning period property in North Yorkshire, with two kitchens and a large south-west facing garden.
This high-spec two-bedroom home is part of a smart collection of new flats at Beaufort Park and has a large decked balcony that's perfect for summer drinks.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Overlooking a golf course, this six-bedroom Edwardian detached home spans four storeys and retains many period features including the original, operational servants' bells...
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
In a Grade II-listed manor just outside of Bath, this three-bedroom home is arranged on two floors with a skylight in a vaulted roof line.
Open the living room's bi-fold wooden doors to reveal a retro-style kitchen, and a conservatory leading to a paved garden at this three-bedroom home.
A Grade II-listed, four-bedroom home, in a charming Somerset village, with a two-storey studio that could be converted into a holiday cottage
A modern four-bedroom Victorian home, within walking distance to the high street
A luxury apartment in the Gothic mansion of Wyfold Court in Kingwood, offers six bedrooms spread over three floors and a turret
This school conversion, near Stockwell Tube, oozes New York loft style. The one-bedroom flat features double height ceilings and exposed brick work
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two-oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn
High Crest House covers an impressive 9384sq ft, with almost three acres of grounds including a tennis court and summer house enclosed by electric gates
A six-bedroom farmhouse with separate accommodation in converted stables. Situated in the village of Church Aston, within walking distance to the market town
A two-bedroom flat with under-heated walnut floors and bespoke built-in storage. The Tube and Clapham Common are a short stroll away
A refurbished seven-bedroom townhouse with staff quarters, cinema room, superb gym, steam room and plunge pool
A minimnalist four-bedroom home designed to the highest spec, featuring glass walls and a kitchen space lit by a glass roof
Hibernate during winter and make your living during the summer at this busy guesthouse with panoramic sea views, in the village of Lynton
A four-bedroom penthouse next to the Tate with direct views of St Paul's from two floors of luxurious living space
A four-bedroom detached home surrounded by spacious gardens and woodland, close to New Pudsey
An 18th-century, three-bedroom home near Langstone Harbour built from ships beams with vaulted ceilings and wood burning stoves
A five-bedroom semi-detached home with a mix of period and modern features in a popular and convenient location
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
A three-bedroom villa with self-contained flat, minutes from Lake Windermere
A five-bedroom Victorian home with four receptions, superb gardens and paddock in Pembury
An eight-bedroom house on the south side of the The Green with cinema, wine cellars and summer house
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
A boutique mews house, set around a central courtyard, with three bedrooms and a private roof terrace
A four-bedroom farm-conversion with three bathrooms and two reception rooms