GENETIC DISCRIMINATION: The Next Civil Rights Issue?
Although nearly 51% of new hires are subjected to medical examinations, "dozens of firms don't inform applicants or employees about the types of tests being done," according to an American Management Association survey of more than 1,000 large and mid-size companies. USA Today reports that at least three of the firms responding to the AMA study routinely conduct genetic testing, and "more than a hundred companies test for susceptibility to workplace toxins."
Creating a New Underclass?
Under current federal law, USA Today reports, there are few safeguards to prevent employers from uncovering genetic secrets. After extending a job offer, an employer can insist upon medical record disclosure, require a pre-employment physical or even review insurance records for genetic information. Some employers ask applicants directly about their genetic health and family medical history. The AMA survey found that more than 200 firms surveyed, or 21.7%, obtain such information from potential employees, and 6% use the information "to make such decisions as whom to hire or promote."
Back and Forth
Employers justify this "genetic scarlet letter" practice by arguing it is intended to shield the majority of employees from skyrocketing health care costs. As Congress gears up to vote on genetic discrimination in managed care companies as early as this summer, insurers are planning their counterattack. "If you allow people to wait until they're sick or likely to get a disease, and you can't reflect that in your pricing, we don't think that's fair to the people who have had a policy for years," said Dean Rosen of the Health Insurance Association of America. "As tests become cheaper, discrimination will be rampant," predicts Lewis Maltby of the American Civil Liberties Union. Indeed, civil rights lawyer Theresa Morelli learned first-hand "what could happen when news of a genetic trait slips out." A new insurance company refused to cover her in 1990 after discovering that her doctor had erroneously jotted on her record that her father had Huntington's disease. "This shouldn't be going on," she said, "Your credit records are more protected than your medical records. This is truly the next civil rights issue" (Armour, 5/5).