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Business Opposes Genetics Bill as House Gives Final OK

May 1, 2008
A bill that would ban employment discrimination based on a person’s genetic makeup received overwhelming approval by the House of Representatives on Thursday, May 1, sending it to the White House for a likely presidential signing into law.

The House voted 414-1 in favor of the measure, which prohibits employers from linking hiring, compensation or other personnel decisions to an employee’s genetic predisposition to a disease.

The bill, identical to a version the Senate approved 95-0 last week, also prevents health insurers from using genetic information to deny coverage or charge higher premiums.

The House passed a previous version of the bill, 420-1, a year ago. But the chamber had to vote again Thursday on the Senate version, which included changes to the original.

The revisions were not enough to assuage concerns of business groups about unintended consequences.

Michael Eastman, executive director of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, criticized the measure for not superseding state genetics laws, for allowing punitive and compensatory damages and for potentially holding employers liable for information they gather through common HR practices like processing leave requests.

Business advocates in the House such as Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, lined up behind the bill.

McKeon praised what he called improvements to the original version but warned that the measure could still be overly broad. He urged that the new law be monitored carefully.

Proponents celebrated the successful conclusion of a legislative process that lasted 13 years. The author, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, called it the most important work of her career.

She and others asserted that the protections it provides will encourage Americans to participate in genetic research that could lead to cures for dreaded diseases.

Previously, they might have hesitated because of concerns about how their genetic information could be used against them in the workplace or the insurance market.

“This bill lifts that fear,” said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-New Jersey, in the floor debate. “This is a singular achievement.”

Employment lawyers, however, eye the measure warily. Burton Fishman, who is of counsel at the Washington firm Fortney & Scott, says that only one genetic discrimination suit has ever been filed despite the fact that 41 states have such laws on their books.

“This is a remedy in search of a problem,” he said. “Congress is usually somewhat behind the curve. Here, they’re light-years ahead of the curve in a field that’s rapidly changing. Education is a better solution than legislation.”

Fishman envisions a scenario in which a company nurse is conflicted about telling emergency medical technicians of an employee’s heart condition because she is not sure whether it would be a violation of the genetics law. 

How the law develops depends on how federal agencies implement it and what kinds of suits arise.

“The devil’s always in the details,” said Michael Ossip, a partner at Morgan Lewis in Philadelphia. “This is another area of regulation that will have to be worked out in expensive and protracted litigation.”

For now, there’s not much the business community can do because the bill looks to be on its way to becoming law.

“It remains to be seen whether there will be frivolous litigation,” Eastman said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.