UK insurers extend freeze on genetic testing

LONDON (Reuters) - British insurers have agreed to extend a freeze on genetic tests to 2014, allowing consumers to continue taking out cover without disclosing the adverse results of tests to predict a predisposition to cancer or heart disease.

Genetic testing has become a major topic for debate in the life insurance industry, as tests using samples of blood, saliva or tissue can now indicate whether a person has inherited a tendency to develop certain potentially fatal diseases.

As a result, life insurers could eventually turn down coverage or raise premiums, based entirely on the genetic predisposition of even healthy customers.

British insurers first agreed to a moratorium in 2001, covering life policies worth up to 500,000 pounds ($972,400) and critical illness cover up to 300,000 pounds. Only around 3 percent of policies sold are above those limits.

Above these values, firms providing life insurance can ask for customers to disclose the results of only one genetic test, a check for the risk of Huntington’s Disease, a neurological disorder, which is approved by the government’s Genetics and Insurance Committee.

But the Association of British Insurers said on Friday it had agreed to extend its voluntary ban by another six years.

“It means people can insure themselves and their families, even if they have had an adverse result from a predictive genetic test,” said Stephen Haddrill, ABI director general.

Some campaigners have argued that the ban should remain in place until the tests can be used responsibly, but others say there should be no difference between genetic testing and providing an insurer with your family medical history.

U.S. lawmakers earlier this year approved a bill barring discrimination based on one’s genetic predisposition. It bars insurers from turning down coverage but also prohibits employers from using the information to hire and fire employees.

Doctors can order genetic tests for various reasons, including looking for genetic illnesses before symptoms appear, and hundreds of tests are available.

The moratorium is next reconsidered in 2011.

Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques; Editing by David Cowell