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Will Genetic Testing Make it Harder to Get Life Insurance?

genetic testing cell with energy

By McKenzy Bowers | October 17, 2017

Could genetic testing be used as a weapon to deny you the ability to buy life insurance in the future? Sounds like science fiction? Maybe not. If “information is power,” how powerful are these new genetic tests? Can your DNA alone determine whether you can even qualify for coverage? Find out.

Anyone remember Gattaca? It was a 1997 science fiction movie with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Set slightly in the future, the story revolves around the use of an individual’s DNA to exclusively determine whether he or she will be a success in life…or a full-fledged failure. In the movie, any genetic imperfections were met with a very harsh societal judgment. Scary stuff, right?

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe…maybe not. But in the 20 years since that movie was released, technology has turned science fiction into science fact. Researchers have now mapped out the entire genetic structure of humans. Our genes are made up of DNA molecules and combine in unique sequence pairs, making up our chromosomes. Every human has 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each human’s complete set of DNA is called a “genome.”

So what does this gene stuff have to do with me?

Well, it might mean a lot down the road. But in the short term, if your genes are not perfect (and who’s are?), no worries. No, you’re not going to be sent to the Island for Slightly-Less-Than-Stellar Genetic Mutants. But there is one type of business that this new technology could be problematic for…the insurance industry.

According to a recent article in The Economist, predictive genetic tests are relatively inexpensive now and widely available. For a few hundred dollars, you can find out a wealth of vital genetic information pertaining to those pesky pairs of chromosomes that we all possess. Companies like 23andme can provide you with access to data about your individual genetic health risks (including your risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, etc.), whether or not you’re a carrier for certain inherited conditions (things that can be passed on to your children, such as Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, etc.), or the odds of your physical traits transforming over time (such as hair loss, developing a sweet tooth, etc.).

How invasive are these DNA tests?

Not very. No blood samples. No needles. All you have to supply is a bit of your saliva. In 6 to 8 weeks, you will receive the analysis of your DNA. According to the 23andme website, human DNA is 99.5 percent identical from person to person. That .5 percent that remains is what makes each of us genetically unique. These minute DNA differences are called “variants.”

The genetic coding from this one-half of one percent is then analyzed, and an online report is generated and then made available to the customer on the company’s website. The generated report can inform you of any genetic traits that could adversely affect your health down the road.

How does predictive genetic testing affect my ability to buy coverage?

Once you possess your predictive genetic test results…what do you do with it? Let’s just suppose for the moment that one of the reasons you had this test done was because you were thinking about buying life insurance.

Most of us know by now that if you’re young and healthy, getting a life insurance policy is pretty darn simple…and fairly inexpensive. Makes sense, right? But as we get older, things inside us start to break down. The tires are little more worn. The engine’s down a quart or two. So to speak. And that’s one of the reasons why life insurance cost more when you’re older. Another good reason to get coverage while you’re still young.

So let’s say you take a predictive genetic test…and you find out that you’ve got the gene that is identified with developing Alzheimer’s? How would that make you feel? And if you are thinking about buying a life insurance policy…are you worried that your DNA test results will fall into the hands of insurers?

A 2014 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), points out that the U.S. Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 prohibits insurers from denying health insurance to applicants based on the results of genetic testing.

 microscopes on a lab table

But what about life insurance? Can I denied a life policy based on my DNA test?

The short answer is…the debate is still going on. U.S. life insurance carriers are treading lightly on this issue. At the present time, no insurer wants to be the first to touch this hot potato. Why? Because they know that they could be faced with a flood of litigation, on discriminatory grounds. Carriers are justifiably concerned that they might be sued by applicants who were rejected for coverage based only on their genetic predisposition (as opposed to being conclusively diagnosed with a serious disease). In other words, it is one thing to be actually diagnosed with Parkinson’s…it’s quite another to only be predicted to perhaps get the disease sometime in the future.

According to that earlier Economist article, many insurers think they should have access to all personal and medical information on a particular applicant at its disposal during the underwriting process, including predictive genetic testing data. An underwriter’s worst nightmare is approving a policy, then discovering that the applicant developed a fatal or prolonged medical condition that was not brought to light during underwriting. That perceived oversight could cost the carrier a lot of money.

Recently, Washington decided to weigh in on the issue. In March 2017, a bill H.R.1313 was introduced in Congress to allow employers to demand workers’ genetic test results. Whether that bill ever becomes law is anybody’s guess. Clearly, the debate on this issue will continue into the foreseeable future.

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