Arguments against the genetic nondiscrimination bills

A new bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would prohibit employers from making hiring/firing and promotional decisions based on genetic information showing a worker may contract a disease in the future, and would also prevent health plans from denying coverage or charging higher premiums using those same genetic tea leaves. (United Press International in today's online newspaper)

The article, in addition to providing reasons for the bill, supplies a good summary of the reasons some legislators are against the bill known as GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act). Here are some of the statements in Laura Gilchrist's article, Analysis: Genes and job discrimination.

Some may think the bill is not strong enough:

The proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Judy Biggert, R-Ill., would be limited to cases where an employer intentionally seeks out genetic information about a worker and misuses that information. The bill even carves out a so-called "water-cooler" exception to protect employers from liability under the law if they come across the sensitive data inadvertently.

The bill also requires that a worker first take his case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before going to court, and damages caps are built into the law; for example, companies with fewer than 100 workers would pay no more than $50,000 in damages, while firms with more than 500 workers would have a damages limit of $300,000.

Others are concerned that the bill "recommends" genetic testing, while prohibiting discrimination based on test results.

"There is a clash between people who want to save money and those who say (a genetic-information non-discrimination law) will cause frivolous lawsuits," Biggert said.

Other policy experts said the bill should still allow companies to collect such data if they can show the genetic information is relevant to a specific job or to worker safety, and that the bill should make clear that it is not a ticket for workers to sue their employers for failing to provide coverage for certain medical conditions.

Speaking in opposition to the bill,

Mohit Gose, spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, told United Press International that his group generally supports the new legislation's goal of prohibiting genetic information-based discrimination in coverage and premium policies, but said insurers should still be able to use the information for "improving the quality of healthcare being provided."

"We continue to work with the House and the Senate to ensure that (its passage) has no inadvertent consequences that could impede (health) quality improvement activities," he said.

Others argue that genetic testing is so new that discrimination isn't occurring yet and we're wasting time passing unneeded legislation.

"Trying to stay ahead of the curve through legislation is a recipe for unintended consequences," Jack Calfee, resident scholar with the free market-oriented think tank American Enterprise Institute, told UPI. "These bans have a way of expanding through legislation and regulatory proceedings and become much broader than contemplated when they were written," he said. "Let's see if it's a problem for employers and employees before we legislate."

Committee Ranking Member Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., also noted the apparent lack of evidence as yet that genetic data are being misused by companies and insurers. "We don't necessarily need a broad, federal mandate," he said. "If legislation is needed -- and the jury is still out -- we should target the solution to the problem, rather than going after a mosquito with a machine gun."

While there have been few discrimination cases stemming from the testing so far, employees of Burlington Northern Railroad did bring a successful case against their former company.

Geneforum's policy is to address issues in their early stages, before great damage has occurred. People in a number of surveys have indicated that they value their genetic privacy. I think this value, and the right to work and to have health insurance regardless regardless of genetic "predisposition", should be addressed while genetic testing is still in its infancy.

Marie Godfrey, PhD



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