Life Insurance – What Price Privacy?

There was a time when people were entitled to their privacy, unless they had committed a criminal offence. Sadly those days are long gone and most unlikely to return. It may have started with the Government authorising the taxman to enter your home, and denying you any right of refusal.

It seems to have developed from that point, giving a free hand to almost anyone who could put forward a good case for intruding into your affairs. Private companies have not been slow to get in on the act, and the number of individuals who now have a right to investigate your private life has grown to alarming proportions. It is doubtful if any individual could ’off the cuff’ give you a comprehensive list of those who are given this dispensation.

The latest intrusion relates to life insurance companies and women who have had breast or ovarian cancer in their family and hope to take out a life policy. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are faulty genes which are adjudged to be responsible for 10% of the ovarian cancers and 5% of the breast cancers which each year are diagnosed in Britain. In connection with this most distressing and private of situations, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is intending to submit an application for its members to be permitted to question women regarding testing for these mutations.

If the government’s advisors, the Genetics and Insurance Committee give their approval, women applying for a life policy will have to say whether they have been tested and if so they will be required to divulge the outcome. Admission of a positive result would be likely to force up premiums or may even be used as a reason for a refusal of cover.

Several European countries have banned this most intrusive of questions and the results of genetic tests in those countries are not permitted as a reason for increasing insurance premiums. Strange to relate Britain has a similar voluntary agreement which last year was extended to 2011. This banned questions about genetic testing for anything except Huntingtons Disease (due to its development being free from environmental effects), and even in that case specific limits have been applied. These are based on the value of the proposed policy and are set at quite high minimum values i.e. £500,000 life, £300,000 critical illness or £30,000 payment protection insurance.

Despite this, the ABI genetics working party is looking for approval by the year end of its proposal for permission to ask insurance applicants about the two cancer genes. Considering that questions are not even currently allowed regarding an applicant being HIV positive, this proposal is really pushing at the boundaries.

One obvious result of such a change was indicated by the 28% of women who, in taking part in a study by the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said that despite a family breast cancer history, they may avoid a genetic test if the results are to be accessible to insurers.

If this proposal should go through, where will it end? The science of genetics is in its infancy and who knows what findings in the future may be useful to insurers and access be demanded as a result. It is easy to extrapolate this to the point where a range of genetic tests must be undergone before a policy will be issued.

Some have seen the dangers and the government is being lobbied by an alliance of scientists, unions and charities backed by lawyers, to refuse any attempts to get approval for this use of genetic information.

Insurance is after all a sophisticated form of gambling where a payment will result if certain things happen – it seems that insurance companies are keen to shift the odds in their favour on the basis of information which should be private to the individual concerned.

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