Senate Passes Legislation To Prohibit Genetic Discrimination Among Employers, Health Insurers
The Senate on Thursday voted 98-0 in favor of a bill (S 306) that would establish protections against genetic discrimination, CQ Today reports (Swindell, CQ Today, 2/17).
Under the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), employers could not use genetic information in employment decisions, and insurance companies could not deny coverage or establish premium rates based on such information (California Healthline, 2/11).
A similar recent House bill, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), had 242 co-sponsors but never made it through committee. Slaughter said she plans to introduce a new bill that will be supported by a more aggressive lobbying campaign based on the Senate vote.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, said, "We're looking at what the Senate did and reviewing the issue as we have the last three or four years. No decision has been made."
An unnamed House GOP aide said party leaders want to ensure that the bill "would not launch a new mandate with unintended consequences" (CQ Today, 2/18).
Slaughter said the bill must be passed soon, adding, "The president supports it, the Senate has passed it overwhelmingly and a majority of the House is ready to vote in favor of the bill. The House leadership has failed to lead on this issue; it is time for them to get out of the way and allow this bill to become law" (Washington Times, 2/18).
Snowe -- citing an NIH report that found about 32% of women decline genetic testing for breast cancer because of insurance concerns -- said, "It is of critical importance that people do not feel afraid to use available technologies that could save their lives just because they are worried about losing their health coverage and their jobs" (CQ Today, 2/17).
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said, "It is absolutely essential that in this time of fantastic scientific advances and discovery that [genetic] information be used for the purpose of preventing, treating and healing diseases, and not as a basis for discrimination."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who has supported the legislation for the past seven years, said many people avoid genetic testing for fear their employer or insurer will discover negative results. "This bill will also prevent employers from hiring or firing folks based on their genetic information; it is progressive legislation that prevents it all right upfront," Frist added (DeBose, Washington Times, 2/18).
America's Health Insurance Plans, which opposed the previous House legislation, said it supports Snowe's bill, which it believes would not increase litigation or prevent insurers and hospitals from using genetic information for health reasons.
"[P]owerful business interests" could keep the measure "in limbo," CQ Today reports. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Restaurant Association oppose the bill because they say that it would "add to a confusing patchwork of laws" and possibly "trigger an explosion of lawsuits because it allows for jury trials and punitive and compensatory damages," CQ Today reports.
Neil Trautwein, assistant vice president of human resources policy for the NAM, said, "There is no evidence that employers are presently discriminating on the basis of genetic information and nothing to support the idea that we might do so in the future." He added, "The House should consign this bill to the trash heap" (CQ Today, 2/17).