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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Genetic Discrimination in the Army

The LA Times has a detailed article on the Army's use of genetic information - and surprise, surprise, it isn't using this information to try to to help its soldiers.  It reports,

Eric Miller's career as an Army Ranger wasn't ended by a battlefield wound, but his DNA. Lurking in his genes was a mutation that made him vulnerable to uncontrolled tumor growth. After suffering back pain during a tour in Afghanistan, he underwent three surgeries to remove tumors from his brain and spine that left him with numbness throughout the left side of his body.   So began his journey into a dreaded scenario of the genetic age. Because he was born with the mutation, the Army argued it bore no responsibility for his illness and medically discharged him in 2005 without the disability benefits or health insurance he needed to fight his disease.  "The Army didn't give me anything," said Miller, 28, a seven-year veteran who is training to join the Tennessee Highway Patrol. . . . .

"You could be in the military and be a six-pack-a-day smoker, and if you come down with emphysema, 'That's OK. We've got you covered,' " said Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University."But if you happen to have a disease where there is an identified genetic contribution, you are screwed."  Representatives from the Pentagon declined multiple requests to discuss the policy.

A high cost

The regulation appears to have stemmed from an effort to protect the armed services from becoming a magnet for people who knew they would come down with costly genetic illnesses, according to Dr. Mark Nunes, who headed the Air Force Genetics Center's DNA diagnostic laboratory at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

The threat is almost certainly small. A 1999 military analysis estimated that about 250 service members are discharged each year for health problems involving a genetic component. Disability payments for them would amount to $1.7 million the first year and rise each year after that as more veterans join the rolls. Healthcare expenditures would have added to the tab.

"Maybe they didn't want to foot the bill for my disability," said Miller, whose rare genetic disease is called Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome. "It's saving money for them. I'm just one less soldier that they have to dish out compensation to."

But the cost for individuals medically discharged can be high. While some eventually receive benefits from Veterans Affairs or private insurers, the policy leaves Miller and others scrambling to find treatment for complex medical conditions at the same time they are reestablishing their lives as civilians without having the benefit of Tricare, the military's health insurance.

"It seems particularly draconian to say, 'Well, you're out with no benefits,' whereas another person with the same injury gets the coverage simply because we don't know there's a gene in there that's causing this," said Alex Capron, a professor who studies healthcare law, policy and ethics at USC.

The entire article is worth the read and provides another example of how we need to reform our health care system. 

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