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Genetic discrimination bill would protect patients from insurance companies: Oliphant

Double helix DNA strand.

Monika Wisniewska/iStockphoto

Canada needs to pass legislation to protect patients who fear genetic discrimination, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant said Tuesday, as a bill addressing the issue made its way to the Commons after receiving unanimous support in the Senate.

Oliphant, who supports the legislation originally proposed by Sen. James Cowan, said the legal landscape needs to be reformed to ensure third-parties, such as a insurance companies, cannot access the results of genetic testing.

If passed, the legislation would add genetic characteristics as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

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Protection against genetic discrimination is already afforded in a number of developed countries, Oliphant noted.

"We are significantly behind the Americans on this," he said.

"In the United States, they found very few documented cases of discrimination but a high fear of discrimination. We can actually lower the fear of discrimination and make sure we have better results at the same time."

Canadian laws have not kept pace with science, escalating the risk of discrimination based on a person's genetic profile, he said, noting fear makes patients more hesitant to pursue testing despite recommendations from their doctors.

"I'm a United Church minister and for many years, I dealt with people who had fears," he said.

"Some of them would discover a lump on their body (and) would not go to a physician because they were afraid of the bad news. There's something human about the way many people handle that ... As well, if people have a sense there's going to be discrimination about having genetic testing, that can also stop them from going and getting the information."

John Fleming, who chairs the national board of Ovarian Cancer Canada, said Tuesday there is great concern about barriers that would stop women from seeking genetic testing that would determine if they are at greater risk of developing the condition.

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"Certainly, genetic discrimination is one of those risks," he said.

Five women die of this disease in Canada every day, Fleming added, noting there are few tools that can be used to diagnose ovarian cancer early.

"We do know that there are some significant risk factors for ovarian cancer. One of those is the BRCA gene," he said.

"If I have a woman in my family who is concerned about her insurability and therefore resists testing as to whether or not she carries the BRCA gene, then she's at much greater risk than she would be otherwise."

The lack of protection from third-parties seeking genetic test results has also been raised by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs who say Jews of European decent are more likely to carry the BRCA genetic marker indicating an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner issued a report on genetic testing and insurance in July 2014.

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It 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.

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