Friday, August 12, 2005

Wearing Genes to Work...

Back in May we looked at the debate about using genetic testing in underwriting insurance policies. Recently, though, I’ve come across some examples, potentially either good or bad, of how genetic testing is changing the workplace.
For example, Chicago Bulls center Eddy Curry, a 22 year old in seemingly fine shape, was found to have an enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat. According to an article in the Seattle Times, there is concern that he may have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which can be caused by a genetic defect.
According to the article, there’s a simple test that can identify up to 60% of folks who inherit such conditions. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Take the test, see if it’s congenital, go from there.
Not so fast. As we discussed in May, these things have consequences. Depending on the results of the test, Curry’s career could be over, and he may have trouble purchasing insurance (after all, this is now a known condition). Or he may be one of the 40% for whom the test doesn’t work, and thus may never know for sure.
Now, most of us aren’t NBA stars (or even wannabe’s), so we may be thinking that this doesn’t really apply to “regular folks.” How many of us type (hint: if you’re using a keyboard with your PC, you’re typing)? Well, buried toward the bottom of the article is this little nugget:
A couple of years ago, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tested the genes of injured workers, without their permission, to try to detect a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome. The railway, apparently, was looking for a way to avoid workman's compensation claims by using an unproven genetic test.
So, at least some people believe that there’s a carpal tunnel “marker” in the genome. Who knew? And what other “markers” lurk in our genes, which insurers, or employers, or even government bureaucrats might exploit?
Now, I’m not a member of the tin-foil hat brigade, but this bugs me. Since the focus of this blog is insurance, I’ll try to stay on that track. As we learned in May, health insurers (at least in Ohio) can’t use genetic testing in their underwriting, and life insurers don’t have to rely on it. But what about other states? Well, the bills we discussed in May related to health insurance, not life, although S 306 discusses “the potential misuse of genetic information to discriminate in health insurance and employment.” I could find no current federal legislation addressing genetic testing in life insurance underwriting.
So, where does that leave us? Well, it’s an issue that appears to be under most everyone’s radar, at least right now. But as more articles like the Seattle Times’ appear, perhaps we’ll see an effort to address it.
UPDATE: Dr. Hsien Hsien Lei of the Genetics and Public Health Blog has a related article. Check out "What's the Point of Finding Genes?" [ed - links are fixed now]
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