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Less stress over genetic tests

Thursday 31 October, 2019

Life insurance companies are no longer demanding that you hand over genetic test results (Shawn Hempel/Shutterstock.com)

Even if you are not currently affected by cancer, insurance companies have, until recently, been able to refuse you cover or charge you higher premiums if you have test results that reveal you have an increased risk of developing one of the cancers that can be genetically linked. These include breast, ovarian, uterine, prostate and bowel cancer, or, less commonly, kidney, pancreatic and thyroid cancer, and even melanoma.

“Insurance cover can be just one more obstacle for people affected with cancer to overcome,” says Hayley Jones, Acting Director of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer.

That’s what the Centre, set up by Cancer Council and the Union for International Cancer Control, has found over the last few years through its work on access to life and travel insurance.

In 2017, the Australian Parliament’s Inquiry into Life Insurance recommended a moratorium, or freeze, on the use of predictive genetic test results, and on 1 July this year, an industry-imposed five-year ban began (it will last until the end of June 2024). The ban applies to the cheaper levels of life insurance and several other sorts of policies.

Other countries, such as the USA, have laws banning the use of genetic tests by insurance companies.

The new ban has critics, who are worried that the financial limits have been set too low and that the ban is self-regulated rather than under supervision from an independent body or the government.

The ban applies to lump sum death or total permanent disability policies to the value of $500,000; trauma or critical illness cover (or policies that combine both) up to $200,000; and to income protection, salary continuance or business expense policies that together total $4,000 a month or less. (Because of the way private health insurance and group life insurance policies are developed, genetic test results are simply not relevant, so there is no need for the ban to apply to these policies.)

The ban does not apply to policies worth more than these amounts, where insurance providers can still ask you to provide the results of genetic tests ordered by your doctors, genetic tests you may have had through being included in a clinical trial or research study or even a test you might have done at home with a DIY kit.

Insurance companies are still allowed, for the more expensive policies, to use unfavourable genetic test results to refuse to provide you with any insurance or to exclude coverage of certain conditions, such as cancer.

If you have favourable test results, you can provide them for any policy, whatever its value, and the company must take these results into account.

Even if you have unfavourable test results, if you can show you are taking preventative measures (such as having medical monitoring or screening tests), insurance providers must consider these actions as well as the test results. Part of the problem with genetic testing for cancer is that it can’t predict when or even if you or anyone else will develop an illness or condition.

Insurance providers must consider what preventative measures, such as regular screening, you are taking (Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock.com)

The government has been concerned that the use of genetic tests by insurance companies may have undermined our medical research efforts.

One not-so-obvious spin-off of the ban is that people no longer have to worry about being excluded from life insurance if they take part in clinical trials or research studies where genetic testing may be involved.

The McCabe Centre will continue to keep an eye on any developments affecting the ban as part of its focus on how to improve access to insurance for people affected by cancer.

Anyone worried that they may have been discriminated against in an insurance application can call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 and is encouraged to seek independent legal advice. Individuals can make formal discrimination complaints about their life insurer to their insurer or to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.


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