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  • Writer's pictureThomas Piccolo

Chris Sprowls focuses on use of genetic information

Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls filed legislation Thursday that would ban insurance companies from using people’s genetic information to cancel, limit or deny life-insurance policies or long-term care coverage.

If successful, Florida will become the first state in the nation to prohibit life-insurance and long-term care insurance companies from using the information.

“I believe there is nothing greater for our privacy than our genetic code,” said Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican slated to become Speaker after the November elections. “Handing that over to large insurance companies is bad public policy.”

Curt Leonard, regional vice president for state relations for the American Council of Life Insurers, said his association is concerned about how the proposal would disrupt the insurance market and raise prices for consumers.

“We look forward to an open dialogue and process to make sure we protect consumers as the bill sponsor desires and also keep coverage affordable and accessible,” Leonard said. “A big concern is how disrupting the market could raise prices for consumers.”

It’s unusual for incoming House Speakers and Senate Presidents to file bills under their names. While bills were filed on the genetic-information issue the past two years, the responsibility of shepherding them through the legislative process was given to other members.

“It’s a badge of honor to take the lead,” Sprowls, a cancer survivor, told The News Service of Florida.

Federal law already prevents health insurers from using genetic information in underwriting policies and in setting premiums. But the prohibition doesn’t apply to life insurance or long-term care coverage, which Sprowls described as a “massive loophole.”

Sprowls said he discovered the issue in December 2017 when he was applying for life insurance. While he was on hold on the telephone waiting for assistance, he said he was struck by commercials from companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA encouraging people to buy genetic tests.

“And then I wondered, how long is it going to be until the person on the phone is going to ask me for that?” Sprowls recalled.

In addition to preventing life insurers and long-term care insurers from using the information in making policy decisions, Sprowls’ bill (HB 1189) also would block the companies from requiring or soliciting genetic information from applicants.

Florida isn’t the only state to look at the issue. According to a Florida legislative staff analysis last year, California, New Jersey, and New York require insurers to get informed consent when requesting genetic testing for life or disability insurance.

Also, Massachusetts prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of genetic information or tests and prevents requiring applicants or existing policyholders to undergo genetic testing. In Arizona, life and disability insurance carriers are prohibited from using genetic information for underwriting or rate-making unless supported by an applicant’s medical condition, medical history and either claims experience or actuarial projections.

“Other states are privacy light,” Sprowls said, noting that the Florida bill, which would preclude the use of any DNA data is “the most aggressive in the country.”

Sprowls has considerable influence in the House, which passed an identical bill last year. But the proposal, which is adamantly opposed by insurance companies, hit a snag in the Senate.

Insurance lobbyist Mark Delegal said that if people know they are predisposed to diseases or chronic illnesses because of genetic test results, insurance companies also should have access to that information.

“It’s the bilateral nature of the information,” said Delegal, who represents New York Life Insurance Co. and State Farm. “If the consumer has it, we need it.”

Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton told the News Service in December that he supports a compromise proposal similar one that was proposed during the 2019 session.

Republican state Sen. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach drafted a bill last year that would have allowed the information to be used if genetic tests were ordered by physicians and were part of a patients’ medical records.

“If you take the test for fun, it’s totally off-limits. Totally off-limits,” Bean told the News Service. “But if your doctor orders one as part of diagnosis, then that should be fair game and in your health profile. To me, that’s the Senate position.”

But with the 2020 session starting Tuesday, Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, has filed a bill (SB 1564) that is a Senate companion to Sprowls’ measure. Stargel in a prepared statement said she is proud to work with Sprowls on the issue and encouraged lawmakers to support the proposal.

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