Not too long from now, your genes are likely to be at war with your health insurer. Within the next few years, it should become fairly easy and inexpensive to get a rough-and-ready readout of your own genetic code that you inherited from your ancestors, one that you can scan for information on which diseases you're most likely to contract, which drugs will help you the most, and ultimately, even how your children might turn out. In other words, a brave new world of genetic transparency is on its way, one that promises to empower individuals to an extent that's still difficult to grasp.
While this at first appears to be good news for individuals, one shudders when thinking about what happens when governmental agencies have access to the same information about you. Even worse, what about insurance companies?
Writing in VentureBeat, David P. Hamilton says that such information might not be so good for consumers. Say your own genome scan shows that you're not predisposed to cancer, heart disease, or diabetes - you might very easily opt for a low-cost, high-deductible healthcare plan that wouldn't have to do much more than cover you in the case of an unexpected accident. By contrast, if you find you're particularly likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer's disease, as you enter middle age, you might not only load up on health coverage, but also pick up a long-term care plan to ensure you're not a burden to your family.
However, if each consumer has that much knowledge about his or her own life expectancy, insurance company profits would plummet. The proposed Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) would bar insurers and employers from discriminating on the basis of genomic information or services. The bill is currently in Congress but appears to be stalled. If passed, GINA would force insurance companies to charge each customer the same amount, regardless of genetic profile. Sophisticated consumers could pick and choose insurance policies at will. Should GINA become law, Hamilton predicts the death of both health and life insurance.
If GINA does not become law, the insurance industry undoubtedly will start charging very high rates to those of high risk. Armed with the same information, consumers will be more knowledgeable than ever about their own risks, reducing their need for insurance. If GINA does not become law, both health and life insurance will probably disappear.
That's right, whether or not the new legislation passes, the impact of knowing your own genetic profile will be huge. Either way, insurance companies suffer. Hamilton believes that the loss of traditional insurance actually might be a good thing but then points out that few Americans have given much thought to what should to replace the private-insurance system.
You can read this fascinating article at http://venturebeat.com/2007/09/11/personal-genomics-and-the-end-of-insurance.