Military Uses Genetic Tests To Deny Benefit Claims
"For more than 20 years, the armed forces have held a policy that specifically denies disability benefits to servicemen and women with congenital or hereditary conditions" -- a practice that "would be illegal in almost any other workplace," the Los Angeles Times reports.
The policy appears to have grown out of an effort to prevent the military from attracting people seeking benefits who knew they would come down with a genetic illness, according to Mark Nunes, former head of the Air Force Genetics Center's DNA diagnostic laboratory at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.
In 1999, a military analysis estimated that about 250 servicemembers are discharged annually for genetic health disorders. Disability payments for those people would total about $1.7 million for the first year and increase thereafter "as more veterans join the rolls," according to the Times.
Military members who opt for genetic testing can be dismissed based on their results, even though there is no way to determine if or when symptoms will develop. Many military doctors discourage their patients from genetic testing to avoid possible dismissal.
Nunes said, "If someone called me up with regard to genetic testing, I had to say, 'That might not be something you want to pursue,'" adding, "That's very hard to say."
The Times notes that Congress in 1996 banned genetic discrimination in group health plans and that former President Bill Clinton in 2000 signed an executive order forbidding the practice against the government's two million civilian employees.
The House has passed legislation (HR 493) to extend the federal law; the bill is awaiting a Senate vote. The law would not extend to the military.
Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, said, "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.'" She added, "But if you happen to have a disease where there is an identified genetic contribution, you are screwed" (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 8/18).