Insurers may have to pay back a number of health and life insurance premiums that they sold during the last two years because of a u-turn by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) on its genetic testing policy.

The ABI wrote to members late last week to warn them it would not apply to the government health department's Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC) for validation of four genetic tests.

The four tests are for myotonic dystrophy, familial adenomatous polyposis, multiple endocrine neoplasia and hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy.

They were among seven tests about which the ABI code allowed its members to ask questions in relation to life, critical illness, income protection and long-term care insurance.

ABI spokesman Vic Rance said the code was set two years ago, in the absence of a clear government policy.

“We thought at that stage, by and large, they (the tests) were relevant to insurance,” Rance said.

“We also said if the GAIC decided any particular test was not relevant for insurance purposes, we would stop taking account of it and also review policy issues from November 1998 onwards.”

Rance said the majority of ABI members had taken the seven tests into account for the past two years. This means they may have to re-underwrite all cases in which positive genetic tests for the four withdrawn diseases were used when setting premiums.

Rance said the four tests were dropped for varying reasons: myotonic dystrophy because it was not sufficiently predictive, familial adenomatous polyposis and motor and sensory neuropathy because sufferers would already be symptomatic, rendering a genetic test pointless, and multiple endocrine neoplasia because the small number of sufferers meant that it is actuarially unimportant.

Norwich Union (NU) has already said it would review a number of cases, after telling a House of Commons select committee that it used tests for the seven diseases to set premiums on 30 occasions.

NU spokesman Ian Frater said the insurer had followed the ABI code implicitly and would amend its practices in line with the new stance on the four tests. “We'll re-underwrite without taking those tests into account,” he said.

The ABI received confirmation last year that the test for the hereditary risk of Huntington's disease was reliable for use in underwriting.

It has applied to use tests for Alzheimer's disease in life, critical illness, income protection and long-term care cover and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer in life, critical illness and income protection cover.

The GAIC said it would make a decision on the tests by June.

Yet the Consumers' Association, which is on the UK Forum for Genetics and Insurance, said the volte-face did not alleviate its concern over the use of tests by insurers. It fears genetic tests will create an insurance underclass.

Consumers' Association spokeswoman Louise Ansari said the ABI pursuit of the two as-yet unconfirmed tests meant the industry's stance on genetic testing remained a matter of concern.

“The decision doesn't appear to make any difference, because the reason they've pulled out is that the tests would be immaterial to underwriting,” she said.