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Do life insurance companies want to get inside your genes?
Yes and no
DOUG King is a heavy equipment operator in Fort
McMurray, Alta. Married with three kids, Mr. King knows at the age
of 47 that he needs to start fixing for his retirement. Recently,
his financial advisers, the Investors Group, offered him what looked
like a good deal on life insurance. There were two kinds of policies
available under an arrangement with Great-West Life; a group plan,
and an individual policy that was $30 a month cheaper but would
require a good deal more of Mr. King.
Mr. King read that the inexpensive policy would require him to
allow his medical data to be submitted to something called the
"Medical Information Bureau." (This is a Boston-based organization,
to which most American and Canadian insurers now subscribe, which
makes medical information collected by one insurance company
available to all.) He also had to give the company permission to ask
friends and family about his "reputation, personal characteristics,
and mode of living." "I went straight sideways," says Mr. King. "I
told them 'I'm not signing,' and we left it at that."
Later, Mr. King and his wife decided they could swallow a pretty
large invasion of privacy for an extra $360 a year. But when he went
back to sign up for the individual plan, his investment counsellor
said it was unfortunate he had not had the required "mouth swab"
yet. "If he thought I was mad the first time, he knew it this time,"
recalls Mr. King. "'You want my genetic information for your life
insurance policy?' I asked. He dodged around it, saying the swab was
for 'other purposes.' I know what an epithelial swab is."
Mr. King's concerns, which led him to opt for the more expensive
policy, are doubtless shared by thousands of Canadians. Taking a
buccal swab from the skin inside the cheek is, in fact, a common way
of taking a DNA sample from a human subject. Marlene Klassen, a
spokeswoman for Great-West Life, says that this is not the intent of
the procedure; the company is looking for nicotine, cocaine and HIV
antibodies, not DNA. "We're not interested in anyone's genetic
information," she says. "If genetic testing has already been done,
we would request access to that information, but we don't do any of
our own testing, and that's consistent with industry
In just a few years, science has discovered genetic keys to an
amazing array of diseases and predispositions for diseases. If
someone can get hold of your DNA, they can find out how likely you
are to get breast cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease or Alzheimer's.
Indeed, they can make nearly perfect predictions about some
diseases, such as Huntington's. The potential benefits to the
insurance industry are self-evident. Last year, an executive from
Royal and Sun Alliance Financial admitted to the Ottawa
Citizen that his company would use genetic information on
individuals if the industry as a whole decided to start demanding it
The great fear for insurance companies is that people with strong
likelihoods of acquiring dangerous diseases will fleece them by
taking out fat policies. (That is one reason they set up the Medical
Information Bureau to trade files on previous policyholders.) Some
economists have argued that if insurance companies could gene-test
policy buyers, it would bring down premiums for the great majority
of people--those with no particular "time bomb" in their DNA. But it
would also create a whole class of "genetic uninsurables" who would
be left helpless to provide for their families through no fault of
Already some governments are trying to act on the issue. In
April, British Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn announced
plans to ban insurers from practising "genetic discrimination"
against policy applicants. Some U.S. states have already passed
similar laws. Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Canadian Life
and Health Insurance Association, says that such legislation is
illogical. "If two people have equal risks, they certainly should be
treated equally," he says. But "discriminating" between risks is
what insurance is. "It is not discrimination, surely, to charge
different premiums on life insurance for 10-year-olds and
90-year-olds." Or, for that matter, to different genders, or to
people whose parents had different lifespans; and that information,
now routinely collected, is itself genetic in nature.
For the moment, the status quo is likely to remain in place. That
satisfies Mr. Black, who notes that widespread genetic testing,
combined with new therapies, may actually reduce the existing number
of uninsurables. But it is unlikely to placate those who, like Mr.
King, are not necessarily willing to take insurance companies at
their reassuring word. "Remember, it's not just my privacy that's
involved," he says. "Genetic information about me is genetic
information about my progeny. Their interests are at stake