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Keeping the gene genie in the bottle

Once more, the issue of gen etic testing in respect of life insurance proposals has become a major issue in the press following the ruling of the genetics and insurance committee to allow insurers to use test results for Hunt ington&#39s Disease when assessing prospective customers. The committee is also considering a number of other genetic tests, the results of which it may allow to be used for insurance purposes.

This development presents a significant issue for the whole insurance industry, in particular for those who want to see uptake of protection products extended across a wider customer base within the UK. It is crucial that such developments are seen from an overall consumer perspective and not just a clinical one. For this reason, CIS has made it our policy not to ask our potential life insurance customers to disclose the results of any genetic tests they may have had unless the results are in their favour.

This decision has not been made in ignorance of the basic principles of underwriting. It is important to remember that genetics is not the exact science that some people may take it to be. The ongoing improvements in genetic science wi
ll hopefully improve the long-term prognosis for individuals, with some res earch teams already reporting success in “curing” genetic conditions.

The CIS feels that great care should be taken before information is used to the disadvantage of customers when our understanding of its implications is evolving so fast.

This needs to be seen within a financial services&#39 picture where many people are alr eady excluded, or consider themselves to be excluded, from basic financial services provision.

A recent survey on social and financial exclusion found only 2 per cent of people felt excluded because they did not have access to financial services. A larger portion were effectively self-excluded, bec ause they believed their inc ome was not sufficient to make private provision. But focusing solely on the affordability of premium levels is far too simplistic an approach when dealing with the problems of financial exclusion.

Exclusion can also be due to one or a combination of the following reasons – condition exclusion (where the conditions attached to financial products make them inappropriate for the needs of some people) or marketing exclusion (where some people are effectively excluded by the targeting of providers).

By introducing what could prove to be another form of condition exclusion – disclosure of genetic test results – the industry is in danger of putting up barriers to new customers by placing more tests and restrictions on life cover.

There is still evidence of mistrust among customers of the financial services industry, with a common misconception that insurers will use all manner of restrictions, tests and reliance on small print to avoid having to pay out on claims. Adding further hurdles to customers who want to take out life cover can only serve to fuel this view – not just among those for whom genetic tests may provide information about their lives but also among the wider population. There are still challenges ahead for the industry in improving the level of provision and awareness of financial services among consumers but it is equally clear there is a genuine will to address many of these issues.

There may well come a time when genetic information will be seen by the public as an acceptable basis for insurance underwriting. But with a large majority of the population under-insured, any measure which may be a deterrent to adequate protection needs to be treated with particular care and attention.

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