TORONTO â€” The decision by Canada's life insurers to stop requiring genetic testing for the vast majority of new policy holders is being dismissed as a pre-emptive strike against pending federal legislation that the industry strongly opposes.
Supporters of a Liberal private member's bill that would explicitly forbid discrimination on the grounds of genetic test results say Wednesday's industry announcement is little more than an 11th-hour stalling attempt that will wind up being redundant if the bill becomes law.
The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association announced that they will soon bar insurers from requesting or using genetic test results for policies valued at up to $250,000.
That threshold represents about 85 per cent of all policies, the association said, adding the new rules would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
Bev Heim-Myers, chair of the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness, said the association's voluntary move should not be seen as a substitute for the legislation that's set to undergo third reading in the House of Commons in the coming weeks.
"For years and years, the insurance industry has had an opportunity to embargo the use of genetic test information, and they have chosen not to," she said. "So now, in the 11th hour, when we have legislation on the table, ...they have come forward with this? It seems that the timing is to discourage the legislation from going through."
Bill S-201, which received unanimous support from the senate last May, features legislation that would make it illegal to request or use genetic information against somebody's will.
The bill would also add genetic characteristics as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, enshrining it alongside race, religion and other long-standing civil rights.
Insurance Association President Frank Swedlove did not deny that the organization has opposed the bill and would not lament any potential failure in the House of Commons.
He argued that banning genetic testing would drive the cost of insurance higher, since Canadians would be relatively free to apply for higher-value policies if there were fewer restrictions in place.
The industry has spoken up against the bill in order to try and keep the cost down for consumers, he said.
Swedlove said the new rules around genetic testing are a way to address their concerns with the bill while acknowledging Canadians' fears about the way their genetic material could be used.
"If the issue is to ensure that the average Canadian family can continue to buy insurance, then this commitment does provide that," he said. "What Bill S-201 would do is have the impact of increasing, significantly, the cost of insurance and making it unaffordable for a lot of people. So if this action discourages Bill S-201 from being passed, then I would see that as being positive."
Heim-Myers said the new rules are discriminatory, since they still require people seeking coverage of more than $250,000 to undergo testing. This, she said, could marginalize those with more complex health needs or chronic conditions who frequently need more extensive coverage.
The office of the federal privacy commissioner has also questioned the use of genetic testing results in the insurance industry.
A 2014 report on the issue noted privacy implications that can arise from the collection and use of genetic information.
"Based on our analysis, it is not clear that the collection and use of genetic test results by insurance companies is demonstrably necessary, effective, proportionate or the least intrusive means of achieving the industry's objectives at this time,'' the report said.
There are now hundreds of genetic tests available to help spot genes known to increase a person's risk of developing certain medical conditions.
But some people may decline tests for fear a positive result may mean they could face discrimination from insurance companies or their employers.
Heim-Myers argues that privacy laws would have the added benefit of advancing scientific research, since more Canadians may be willing to agree to genetic testing if they felt their information was secure and could not be used against them.
â€” With files from Dave Paddon
â€” Follow @mich_mcq on Twitter
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press