Gavin Newlands – 2018 Speech on Insurance and Genetic Conditions

Below is the text of the speech made by Gavin Newlands, the SNP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, in the House of Commons on 8 January 2018.

May I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker? I hope you had a restful festive period. I know that, like me, you will have spent the time wondering why Paisley did not win the city of culture in 2021, and why Coventry still has not won it. I am grateful that you are in the Chair this evening.

I am delighted finally to fulfil a promise that I made to John Eden, the chief executive of the Scottish Huntington’s Association, to bring to the Floor of the House a debate on the difficulties that both individuals currently suffering from genetic conditions and those with a high likelihood of developing such a condition in the future have in securing insurance. Those with complex neurological conditions, such as Huntington’s in particular, have real trouble in trying to access affordable and fair insurance that allows them to secure a range of services that the rest of us, quite frankly, take for granted.

From the outset, I readily admit that this is not an easy issue: there is no easy fix. It is not a black-and-white issue, but the barriers facing those affected remain deeply unfair. In highlighting this problem, I intend to look at some of the problems that exist with genetic testing, as well as at how many insurance companies are able to bypass the voluntary concordat and moratorium on genetics and insurance by demanding that any applicant provides their full family history before they decide whether to insure someone.

This issue was brought to my attention by the Scottish Huntington’s Association, which is based in my constituency. The SHA is the only charity in Scotland that is exclusively dedicated to supporting families affected by Huntington’s disease. As well as providing a range of specialist support services for those who suffer from this condition, including a world-leading team of specialist youth advisers and a financial wellbeing service, the SHA campaigns to help improve the life chances of those who suffer from this complex neurological condition.

Across the UK, Huntington’s affects between five to 10 people per 100,000, but Scotland has one of the highest rates of prevalence, with about 20 in every 100,000 in Scotland having HD, and 5% to 10% of cases develop before the age of 20. Huntington’s is one of life’s most devastating illnesses. People with it can suffer from repetitive involuntary movements resulting in mobility, balance and co-ordination problems, as well as difficulties with speech and swallowing. Huntington’s can also develop a type of early-onset dementia that affects an individual’s ability to process information, make decisions, solve problems, plan and organise. Those affected by HD can also experience a decline in their mental health and may eventually lose the ability to walk, talk, eat, drink, make decisions or care for themselves, requiring support for most or all of their activities on a 24-hour basis.

Despite the challenges that those with Huntington’s have to live through each and every day, they still need to live their lives, and that requires access to insurance. That particular issue is not new to this House, as it has been debated and discussed in the past, although it has ​not been raised as often as it should have been. The use of genetic testing in insurance can be traced back to debates held in this House in 2000. Unfortunately, as I will discuss later, it appears that not enough has been done by the UK Government or the insurance bodies to help rectify the matter properly.

Individuals need to secure insurance on many different aspects of their lives. We need insurance to be able to drive a car. Most of us will require home insurance if we want to secure a mortgage, and families who want to go on holiday will need to secure travel insurance before setting off. Many of us will take out life insurance to protect us and our family and cover any tragic or unplanned event.

Securing insurance is the responsible thing to do, but many individuals and families are prevented from doing so, as they are either unfairly refused outright or priced out of the market. Trying to find the right insurance is never fun, but it has never been easier. With the advent of comparison websites, five minutes is all it takes for most of us to access the most suitable and cheapest insurance. However, there are thousands of people out there who dread the thought of even trying to access insurance, because for them it is not the simple and straightforward task that it is for most of us. It is an extremely time-consuming experience, often fruitless and always very expensive.

A survey completed late last year by Genetic Alliance UK found that 65% of respondents had problems accessing insurance. I am certain that that figure would have been higher had the survey asked questions only of Huntington’s sufferers.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I asked him for permission to intervene. I am a member of the Northern Ireland Rare Disease Partnership, an organisation that focuses on many rare diseases including Huntington’s. As the number of those with rare diseases and genetic conditions continues to increase and insurance cover becomes a greater problem for a greater number of people, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time for the Government to review the insurance situation and ensure that the problem he has outlined, which I know about in my constituency, is addressed urgently?

Gavin Newlands

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I will come on to discuss the particular review relating to Huntington’s, but I totally agree with him.

The reasons cited by survey respondents for not being able to access insurance included affordability, lack of understanding of the condition and the length of time the process takes to complete. Insurance policies by their very nature are designed to assess the level of risk before they choose to insure someone. We all know and accept that. If someone has previously crashed their car or had a bad credit rating, the chances are that they will either be denied insurance or face paying higher premiums for accessing insurance. It has always been thus. However, we should not equate having a bad credit rating to having a certain health condition, but that is exactly what is happening at the moment. Individuals with certain health conditions are experiencing great challenges to be able to access affordable insurance.​
Genetic testing will be one of the ways in which insurance companies try to determine whether someone is destined to develop Huntington’s.

Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)

Does my hon. Friend feel that we will require legislation? Here, people with Huntington’s chorea are picked out because of a family history, but as we move into the era of genomics, if we allow insurance companies to force Huntington’s people to take genetics tests, we could all be forced to take genomic tests to see our risk of heart attack, cancer and so on. We need to deal with this now.

Gavin Newlands

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We will have to come back to the issue under discussion and address the much wider issue in years to come.

Insurance companies believe that information derived from genetic testing is of relevance to assessing risks, and they argue that it provides

“a reliable indication of increased susceptibility to medical conditions which require expensive care.”

However, individuals who face the brunt of these tests and are either denied insurance or face ridiculously high premiums believe that they are being discriminated against.

An individual with a positive predictive genetic test for Huntington’s will find it extremely difficult to receive insurance, and I have received numerous emails from people throughout the UK sharing their experience of trying to secure insurance. Indeed, one contributor to the Huntington’s Disease Association Facebook page stated that they had tested negative but were still quoted over the odds because they had been tested.

Those obstacles also affect the family members of those with Huntington’s. Another sad aspect of the disease is that it is hereditary, so it impacts on entire families over generations. People with HD often have children before developing symptoms of the disease. If someone carries the defective HD gene, each child they have has a 50% chance of having Huntington’s.

An individual with a diagnosis of Huntington’s is not ordinarily able to obtain life, critical illness or income protection insurance, so families are unable to protect themselves from the future financial impact of this horrible disease. Not being able to access insurance compounds the huge negative economic impact of the disease. Those with HD almost always have to give up their employment, as do many of their family members, who have to act as carers for their loved ones. They also incur greater expenses arising from the health condition and many have to live on benefits—something that is proving impossible due to Tory austerity. If people are lucky enough to find insurance, they are very unlikely to be able to afford it, given the impact I have just described.

One of the emails I spoke of earlier came from a family who have struggled to access basic holiday insurance. The Kitching family have two young children, one of whom has a rare genetic condition. Before their son was born, the family had no problem acquiring insurance and were able to cherry-pick the insurer they used. These days, it is a very different story. Last summer, they had to navigate numerous hurdles and obstacles, including spending nearly eight hours on the phone, to finally secure a basic travel insurance policy. Despite their best efforts, the Kitchings’ insurance bill increased by 900%, ​which is surely beyond what any of us would deem acceptable. Unsurprisingly, for a number of reasons, the Kitchings did not have a wide selection of providers to choose from. Not only were they met with a brick wall and a refusal to even discuss the possibility of insuring them, but they found that many companies lacked the necessary basic knowledge to assess the risks posed by certain health conditions.

Those were the obstacles the Kitchings had to navigate to go on a simple family holiday to France. I am sure that hon. Members can only begin to imagine what that family and the many others like them would have to go through if they wanted to acquire life insurance.

The experience of the Kitchings is not unique. According to Genetic Alliance UK, a national charity working to improve the lives of patients and families affected by all types of genetic conditions, 59% of people who responded to its 2017 survey said that they decided to change or cancel their holiday plans altogether because they would not be able to access basic holiday insurance. The Kitchings believe that the current system lacks any transparency and that greater clarity is required for them and families like them. They want the system to be much more closely regulated to ensure that individuals and families are not discriminated against by insurance companies because they lack the necessary medical knowledge to understand genetic conditions such as Huntington’s.

Insurance companies recognise to some degree that individuals and families experience financial distress when trying to access the correct level of insurance. The UK Government and the Association of British Insurers therefore believe that the relationship between medical data and insurance underwriting should be proportionate and based on sound evidence. However, their definition of proportionate is, to say the least, at odds with what the families affected would consider to be fair and affordable.

There are several reasons why many individuals are reluctant to take a genetic test, such as the financial black hole that can be caused by restricted access to affordable insurance or not wanting to live their lives under the cloud of diagnosis. According to Genetic Alliance UK, less than one in five people at risk of Huntington’s disease choose to have the predictive genetic test. To try to combat that, the concordat with insurance companies who are members of the ABI states that insurers will not seek the results of genetic testing for insurance with a value less than £500,000. In practice, that would mean that individuals and families had a far greater chance of accessing affordable insurance to go on holiday, buy a car or purchase a house.

In reality, the moratorium provides little protection people for people with Huntington’s or similar neurological conditions because instead of the insurance companies mandating that someone complete a genetic test, they will get around it by demanding that any individual hoping to secure insurance provides other forms of information, including a full family history. As I mentioned, each child of a Huntington’s disease sufferer has a 50% chance of inheriting the condition. Therefore, the information that is gathered by bypassing the genetic testing can lead to an individual’s access to affordable insurance being restricted. As such, the current moratorium does not provide enough protection for individuals and makes securing insurance a near-impossible task to accomplish.​

The SHA believes that the business model that many insurance companies use to calculate risk is limited and does not collect all the genetic information available to calculate more precisely an individual’s health conditions. In other words, if we must use genetics, let us use them properly. This point is reinforced by an email that I received from Trish Dainton, whose husband sadly passed away from Huntington’s. She highlighted the unfairness of a system that can increase an individual’s premiums to ridiculously high levels on the assumption that they might have the HD gene but might not start developing the symptoms for 40-plus years.

It is no surprise, then, that so many people are avoiding being tested for HD, given that it could force them to pay a lifetime of sky-high insurance premiums. In addition, according to the 2017 survey by Genetic Alliance UK, 50% of respondents have avoided applying for insurance altogether, stating that concerns over premiums would prohibit them from accessing insurance. It should concern us all—certainly the Government—that too many people do not feel they can access any form of insurance. After hearing the stories from those who have lived with Huntington’s disease and how it affects their everyday lives, I think that it is clear that the insurance companies and the Government have to do a lot more to understand conditions such as HD.

In preparing for tonight’s debate, I have been sent numerous emails from individuals affected who say that most people do not truly understand the disease. The insurance companies state that the development of genomics is crucial to helping to guide the industry, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), but the system should be guided by medical knowledge and not by what a pre-programmed computer screen tells the operator to do.

As I have said, it has never been easier for most of us to quickly secure the insurance we need, and the insurance free market caters for the vast majority. For those with HD, however, shopping around means not a 30-second comparison website search but hours and hours of phone calls and being asked probing questions by someone who does not actually understand the condition. The Genetic Alliance UK report confirmed that the length of the process is one of the common complaints made by people and that there is a real desire for more action to be taken to reduce the time it takes to try and acquire insurance. That seems to be one way the insurance companies, whether at the Government’s behest or voluntarily, could work with stakeholders to design a process that prevents them from having to repeat the same information over and again.

If we do not develop a system that better understands neurological conditions, we risk creating a genetic underclass of people excluded from accessing affordable insurance due to misleading and inaccurate information gathered by insurance companies. The UK Government have a key role in changing this system to help make life that bit easier for those who have HD. The insurance companies self-regulate who they will and will not provide coverage to. That is not fair, and it is not good enough.

The current arrangements for insuring people who have or might have HD have not been reviewed since 2012, despite the fact that they should have been reviewed in 2014 and again in 2016. Indeed, the UK is out of step ​internationally in the way it treats those with genetic conditions. In 2000, the UK became the first nation to approve the commercial use of gene technology to allow insurers to refuse insurance cover or to push up premiums for those born with genes that could lead to fatal conditions later in life. Furthermore, unlike many other developed countries, such as Canada, the USA, Sweden, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, the UK does not have specific legislation that prevents genetic discrimination. Let us be clear: despite the fact that equalities legislation supposedly provides this protection, those affected believe that they are being discriminated against by the insurance companies.

The Government have a duty to respond to the thousands of people across the UK who have been waiting for action to be taken against the insurance companies. There is plenty that can be done on this issue, but I would start with the HD insurance review that is now nearly four years overdue. The Government could get tougher on the insurance companies, offer to help with a Government-backed insurance scheme for those with Huntington’s or put a realistic cap on premiums. I am not asking the Minister to commit to any specific actions this evening beyond urging him to confirm a new review and requesting a meeting with me, the Scottish Huntington’s Association and others so that he can hear at first hand of the very real and systemic problems.

In conclusion, I cannot—I am sure that none of us can—begin to understand how tough life is for those suffering from Huntington’s and the huge impact it has on the families caring for them. These families are not asking to change the world; all they want is to be able to access affordable insurance to allow them to go on holiday, buy a house, purchase that new car and protect them from the worst of the financial impact resulting from the condition. In short, they want to live their lives as best they can. We, as a society, should be doing all that we can to make life easier for those with genetic conditions, not putting further barriers in their way. I hope that the Minister can join me, and thousands of families up and down the country, in helping to create a fairer, more accessible and more affordable system for the individuals and their families who are currently in this invidious position.