HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, April 25, 2008

Genetic Discrimination Bill Passes Senate

The Genetic Information Anti-Discrimination Act (GINA) passed the Senate yesterday.  The House is epxected to approved GINA quickly and President Bush has indicated he will sign it.  The New York Times reports,

People learning through genetic testing that they might be susceptible to devastating diseases wouldn't also have to worry about losing their jobs or their health insurance under anti-discrimination legislation the Senate passed Thursday.  The 95-0 Senate vote sends the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act back to the House, which could approve it early next week. President Bush supports the legislation.

The bill, described by Sen. Edward Kennedy as ''the first major new civil rights bill of the new century,'' would bar health insurance companies from using genetic information to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility. Similarly, employers could not use genetic information in hiring, firing or promotion decisions. . . .

Genetic testing could lead to early, lifesaving therapy for a wide range of diseases with hereditary links such as breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson's disease.  ''But right now the ability to realize those goals is somewhat limited'' because of patients' fears that the information will be used against them, said Dr. David Herrington, a professor of cardiology at Wake Forest University and spokesman on genetic issues for the American Heart Association. The legislation ''will help them both be more willing to participate in research and avail themselves of the benefits of genetic testing.''

Congressional efforts to set federal standards to protect people from genetic discrimination go back more than a decade, to a time when there were only a small number of genetic tests. But now, with the mapping of the human genome in 2003, people have access to far more information about their hereditary disposition to such crippling afflictions as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Bill sponsors said that has increased the likelihood that a prospective health insurance company or employer will reject a person because of concerns that person will suffer a costly disease in the future. . . .

A compromise worked out earlier this week tightens language to ensure there is a ''firewall'' between the part dealing with health plans and the section regarding employment, so as to discourage inappropriate claims.  It also makes clear that, while individuals are protected from discrimination based on genetic predisposition, insurance companies still have the right to base coverage and pricing on the actual presence of a disease.  ''We certainly improved the bill from a liability standpoint,'' said Coburn, an obstetrician. He said he was an adamant supporter of the legislation ''if it is not designed to feed the trial lawyers.'' . . .

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