The Current

Can genetic discrimination bill protect patients from insurance hikes?

Scientific advances have allowed us to know more about our genetic makeup. But for some, genetic testing may risk getting insurance. Parliament is debating a proposed law meant to put a stop to genetic discrimination but insurers are warning against it.
Bill S-201 aims to prevent genetic discrimination but the insurance industry warns rates could go up if companies aren't allowed access to genetic testing results. (Jim Young/Reuters)

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This week, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant introduced a new bill in the House of Commons — Bill S-201 — an act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination. But the insurance industry warns rates could go up by 30 to 50 per cent if companies aren't allowed access to genetic testing results.

Genomics health services researcher Yvonne Bombard has contributed some of her research that informs the new bill. She tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch why it's essential to prevent insurance and employment discrimination because she says people will not get tests that treat a health condition or further medical research.

"It's a pervasive issue that is of significant concern to the communities and families that we speak to every day in our practices... and that has caused individuals to employ a range of of different type of strategies that often is to the deterrent of their own health," says Bombard.

Medical researchers and patients are cheering for a proposed law that will make it illegal to discriminate based on genetic characteristics. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

If Bill S-201 is passed, the Canadian Human Rights Act would include genetic characteristics that would be grounds for discrimination. It would also mean the Canadian Labour Code would incorporate a new complaint's procedure for individuals who are employed by federally regulated industries.

"The most important part of the bill is called The Genetics Non-Discrimination Act which… would prevent individuals from even engaging in this type of discriminatory behavior to begin with," says Bombard.

"It would effectively make it a criminal offence to require individuals to take a genetic test or disclose the results of genetic test before entering into a contract or providing a service."

Bill S-201 is not without its critics. President and CEO of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association Frank Swedlove says the bill is not needed and will make it harder for everyone to get insurance since rates will go up.

"When an insurance contract is written, one looks at the risks associated with entering into that contract and where there is greater risk; obviously the costs will go up," says Swedlove.

If the bill does become law, Swedlove predicts those who have a negative genetic test results will buy more insurance than they might have before the test was taken which will increase claims, and eventually increase costs.

'Insurance is about a pooled risk."-  Bioethicist Françoise Baylis

The Canadian Institute of Actuaries estimates the cost of life insurance will increase by 30 per cent for men and 50 per cent for women. 

"Some people won't buy insurance any more and they won't be protected and they would be the real losers with respect to this bill," Swedlove tells Lynch.

From an ethics point of view, Dalhousie University's Canada research chair in bioethics and philosophy Françoise Baylis says she's concerned when people argue the cost of insurance because she says this encourages people to think selfishly.

"You're saying 'look we don't want our premiums to go up so let's throw these folks out of the boat.' That's not what insurance is about. Insurance is about a pooled risk."

Baylis says the shared risk is the context in which Canadians typically understand their commitment to health insurance.

"And why not also their commitment to life insurance — we're in this together."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Sujata Berry and Shannon Higgins.