Life insurance and the question of genetic predisposition

It's customary to start off with the assumption that medical science is wonderful. These dedicated researchers are doing the work to keep us in better health for longer. Unfortunately, the results of research don't always work in our favor. Take the question of genetics. It sounds great that doctors can now test for different genetic disorders. Treatment is either available or in the pipeline to treat many problems. But what happens if information about your genetic makeup becomes available during an application to a life insurance company? As an example, it's now possible to test for BRCA-1, a gene associated with hereditary breast cancer. During a review of her family's medical history during the medical exam, the question of her mother's breast cancer may be raised. She could have the test to establish whether she's at risk but, if she proves positive, the insurer is almost certain to reject the application. She may also be denied promotion at work and suffer other forms of discrimination. As it becomes cheaper and easier to carry out genetic testing, questions are now being asked whether health and life insurance companies should be allowed to insist on genetic tests to identify risks of future disease.

The real problem at present is that the genetic tests are only an indication of possible risk. The science of predicting whether an individual is actually at risk is years away. So people are being victimized because life insurance companies give too much certainty to the test results. With genetic tests now available for both breast and colon cancer, should insurers be allowed to refuse cover for everyone testing positive for these genes?

Insurance is supposed to provide security for families when someone dies earlier than expected. So if someone catches the latest flu virus and dies, this is part of life and the insurer should pay out. There's no epidemic of people dying of genetic diseases. They are dying of cancer or heart disease, and such diseases have been included in the actuarial charts for more than a century. Life insurance companies should continue to pay out and not refuse cover just because there's a gene present that may suggest an increased risk of cancer and/or heart disease. Indeed, medical science admits the majority of people testing positive for certain genes may remain healthy throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, there's no federal law to prevent this discrimination. As it is, some insurers are already penalizing individuals for both health and life insurance purposes. To see whether you're at risk of this discrimination, check out the website operated by your local Insurance Commissioner. This individual is responsible for writing the local regulations. As a general rule, your privacy should be protected and you should not be victimized either because you refuse a genetic test or because the test shows the presence of a relevant gene. This is particularly important if the testing is for psychological conditions, e.g. predisposition to alcoholism and suicide where the science is still very unreliable.