When a person applies for medical, life, or disability insurance, the insurance company typically requires the disclosure of preexisting medical conditions and a family medical history. In some cases the applicant must undergo a physical examination. Based on this information, the insurance company decides whether to offer coverage and, if so, at what price.
Breakthroughs in genetics now allow persons to be tested for rare medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease. In addition, genetic testing can reveal an increased risk of more common conditions, including breast, colon, and prostate cancer; lymphoma; and leukemia. Concerns have been raised that once these tests become affordable, insurance companies will use the results to deny coverage.
Research studies published in the 1990s indicate that persons already have been denied insurance coverage because of the risk of genetic disease. The prospect of widespread genetic discrimination troubles many professionals in the medical and legal communities. It is unfair, they charge, to deny a person coverage or to charge higher premiums, based on a potential risk of genetic disease that the person is powerless to modify.
The insurance industry, which currently collects medical information on genetic disease through the inspection of medical records and family histories, responds that a fundamental principle in writing insurance is charging people rates that reflect their risks. This means that each applicant pays the fairest possible price, based on her individual characteristics. The industry also notes that the concerns about genetic testing do not come into play with large-group health plans, where rates are based on methods other than individual assessments.
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