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House Passes Bill to Ban Genetic Discrimination in the Workplace

The broad support mustered in the House mirrors the margins garnered in Senate votes on the issue in previous years. It wins approval by a whopping 420-3 vote.

April 25, 2007
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A bill that would ban genetic discrimination is garnering the backing of hundreds of lawmakers even as the employer community warns that the details of the legislation may create problems for companies.

Individual companies may not be paying much attention anyway, because they don’t want to know an employee’s genetic makeup, according to an employment lawyer.

On Wednesday, April 25, the House approved a bill, 420-3, that would prohibit employment and insurance discrimination based on a person’s genetic predisposition to a disease. The broad support mustered in the House mirrors the margins garnered in Senate votes on the issue in previous years.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved a bill similar to the House version earlier this year. The Senate may decide to take up the House bill, speeding its journey toward bicameral approval. The Bush administration has signaled its support for the measure.

The business lobby, while expressing support for a ban on genetic discrimination, says that changes must be made to the bill. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination in Employment Coalition says that the legislation in its current form could cause administrative and legal headaches for employers.

In a letter to House leadership, the group asserts that the bill would subject companies to excessive punitive damages for paperwork mistakes. Another criticism is that the bill does not pre-empt state laws and “would force employers to comply with a burdensome patchwork of conflicting state standards.”

The coalition comprises six business groups, including the HR Policy Association, the ERISA Industry Committee and the Society for Human Resource Management.

Some misgivings about the bill were expressed by Republicans on the House floor, who nonetheless voted for the measure and said they hoped the problems would be resolved later in the legislative process.

They also praised what they called improvements in the bill, such as language that would prohibit the law from being used to force employers to cover genetic conditions.

The changes notwithstanding, "it’s still not a very helpful bill," says Burton Fishman, an employment lawyer with Fortney Scott in Washington. "This continues to be a remedy in search of a problem."

No genetic discrimination suits have been filed in the 32 states that have such laws. There has been only one federal case.

The vast majority of employers don’t care about genetic information, Fishman says. So, they may not be up in arms about the bill that is zipping through Congress.

"Most of my clients are worried about getting good employees," Fishman says. "They’re not concerned about whether you have a trait for a disease that may or may not manifest during your employment."

Proponents of the measure cited the scientific gains that can be achieved if more people sign up for genetic testing because they are assured that their DNA information is secure.

The bill "will do more than stamp out a new form of discrimination," Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York and author of the legislation, said in a statement. It "will encourage Americans to seek out preventative health care and participate in clinical trials critical to finding cures for some of our most deadly genetic-based diseases."

Slaughter has shepherded the legislation for 12 years. On April 25, it received its first House vote.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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