Insurance hazard in web gene tests

Newspaper Article by PETER HAWKINS

March 14, 2010

THE growth of online DNA testing companies overseas has created a loophole for Australians wanting to discover if they have genetic problems – but not report the results to their insurer.

People have a legal obligation to disclose any information on genetic testing and their family medical history before taking out life and disability cover but the information can only be cross-checked by insurance companies if it has been carried out in Australia.

Members of the National Health and Medical Research Council said insurance companies were concerned as technology became faster and cheaper and the number of people wanting a DNA test rose.

”This is something the insurance industry needs to realise and deal with,” council chairman Ron Trent said.

”The insurance industry wouldn’t want this to happen because people might use the overseas companies, then go and get insurance where they normally might not have been able to. It would skew the system.”

DNA kits are sent to Australia, and customers swab their mouths and return the kits. Professor Trent, head of medical molecular genetics at the University of Sydney, said such kits could cause problems for consumers. He encouraged anyone with a serious medical condition not to rely on the testing.

”There is concern that some of these tests are too premature to tell you anything about the health of a person,” he said.

”Bypassing insurance companies is not a good thing because, by bypassing doctors and genetic counsellors, they have the results but they don’t have anyone to help interpret or provide support.”

Margaret Otlowski, professor of law at the University of Tasmania, said being tested overseas would be attractive to those deterred by the financial implications after being tested here. But ”backdoor genetic testing” had accuracy and regulation problems.

”The industry is concerned that people will buy up insurance based on risk the consumer knows about but the insurer doesn’t,” said Professor Otlowski, deputy director of the centre for law and genetics.

”There’s no regulation [on overseas testing] and the worry is that consumers won’t know that.”

The council said a local test that caused insurance to be denied had a positive side.

”If you have a DNA test and you can show the dementia gene in your family hasn’t passed on to you, then [the insurer] can’t do anything because you are no longer at risk,” Professor Trent said.

A spokesman for the Investment and Financial Services Association said that of 455,000 applications for life insurance in 2005 (the most recent data), only eight were refused as a result of a genetic test.

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