Coalition urges careful consideration of genetic bias legislation

By Rita Zeidner Feb 2, 2007

A coalition of business and employer organizations co-chaired by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is urging House lawmakers to be cautious in considering a bill that could penalize businesses that receive genetic information or force employers to make costly changes to their insurance coverage.

At issue is H.R. 493, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Its supporters say the bill would prohibit group health plans and health insurers from denying coverage to a healthy individual or from charging that person higher premiums based solely on a genetic predisposition to develop a disease in the future. In addition, the bill would bar employers from using an individual's genetic information when making hiring, firing, job placement or promotional decisions.

But SHRM and other business advocates say H.R. 493 goes too far. As drafted, the bill could subject employers to frivolous litigation and cause insurance rates to skyrocket by forcing coverage of all genetic disorders, critics say.

Attorney Burton J. Fishman, representing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination in Employment Coalition at a Jan. 30, 2007, hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, emphasized the coalition's support for genetic nondiscrimination and confidentiality. But he warned of an "absence of empirical evidence of genetic discrimination in employment" that would justify many provisions in the proposal.

He recommended the elimination of provisions that expose employers to punitive damages for technical violations or that require insurance coverage for all genetic disorders. In addition, he urged lawmakers to reconcile any differences between any new federal laws and existing state laws.

Also testifying before the subcommittee, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a sponsor of the bill who also is a scientist, said that there are "significant examples of genetic discrimination" in the workplace. Among them is a 2002 Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. case in which the company agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that it had tested employees without their knowledge for a genetic marker. In addition, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was found to have performed genetic tests on some employees improperly. And in the 1970s, blacks were denied jobs and insurance based on the notion that they might carry a gene for sickle cell anemia, she said.

Slaughter emphasized that genetic testing can help save lives by identifying an individual's susceptibility to a disease or whether a particular treatment will work. But many employees refuse to be tested for fear the information could be used adversely by an employer, she said.

At presstime, the bill was pending before several House committees. A companion bill was approved Jan. 31 by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Senate measure, which has bipartisan support, is identical to a bill that has been approved by the full Senate twice in recent years. Business groups have expressed concerns with that measure as well.

Rita Zeidner manages the SHRM Online Technology Focus Area.

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