04/17/2013 02:19 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Genetic Non-Discrimination Act: New Bill Would Stop Discrimination By Insurance Firms

OTTAWA - The Liberal leader in the Senate has introduced legislation that would stop insurance companies and others from discriminating against people who are genetically susceptible to some diseases.

Sen. James Cowan's bill, tabled Wednesday, aims to ensure people are not treated differently because genetic testing shows they have higher odds of getting certain diseases.

There are now hundreds of genetic tests available to help spot genes known to increase a person's risk of developing certain conditions. But some people may opt against being tested for fear a positive result may mean they could face discrimination from insurance companies or their employers.

Cowan, the Opposition leader in the Senate, said the bill to create the Genetic Non-discrimination Act would also amend both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canada Labour Code to prohibit genetic discrimination.

The legislation proposes hefty fines and possible jail time for anyone found to have discriminated against someone else based on genetic testing.

"There is concern about this," Cowan said in an interview.

"There are reports. It's always difficult to assess the number of incidents. But certainly in other countries, there's been this discrimination. So we're reasonably sure that that same prevalence would be here in Canada."

A University of British Columbia study done in 2009 found widespread discrimination against people at risk for Huntington's disease, most often by insurance companies, family members and in social settings. However, there were few reports of discrimination at work, at doctors' offices or hospitals, or by the different levels of government.

There are currently no laws in Canada that specifically prohibit genetic discrimination. However, there appears to be broad political consensus around the issue.

Past Conservative and Liberal election platforms pledged to stop discriminatory life insurance practices, with the Liberals making specific mention of discrimination based on genetic testing.

Last fall, the New Democrats introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons to ban "genetic characteristics" as grounds for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The bill did not make it beyond first reading.

The federal privacy commissioner has also commissioned two research papers on genetic testing.

"I'm hopeful that it will receive all-party support," Cowan said. "I don't see it at all as a partisan issue."

However, insurance companies may oppose such legislation.

The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, a non-profit industry group, has taken the position that the industry should not require someone to get genetically tested before applying for insurance.

But the association says that if such testing has already been done and the results have been shared with the applicant or their doctor, insurance companies should be able to request the information.

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