- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

People cannot be fired or denied medical coverage based on their DNA — regardless of any predisposition that their genes may have to health problems — according to legislation passed by the Senate yesterday.

The measure, which the chamber passed by a vote of 95-0, would make it illegal for employers and health insurance companies to discriminate against people by using their genetic information against them.

Senate health committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act “the first civil rights bill of the new century.”

“With its passage, we take a quantum leap forward in preserving the value of new genetic technology and protecting the basic rights of every American,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.

The bill now goes back to the House, which passed a similar version of the Senate measure last year by a vote of 420-3.

The White House supports the legislation.

Scientific breakthroughs in recent years have increased the use of DNA and other genetic information for medical purposes, allowing doctors and researchers to diagnose medical problems much earlier than before. But this information also potentially can be used by employers to fire workers or deny them promotions or to screen potential job applicants.

The bill also would bar health insurance companies from using genetic information to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said the measure was “unique and groundbreaking” because “for the first time, we act to prevent discrimination before it has taken firm hold.”

“Like race and gender bias, genetic discrimination is based on the unchangeable — yet it also requires a deliberate effort to obtain gene data in order to discriminate,” Mrs. Snowe said.

Genetic tests are available today that can lead to early, lifesaving therapy for a wide range of diseases with hereditary links such as breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. But Mrs. Snowe said these tests are “absolutely useless” if fear of discrimination discourages people from taking tests or participating in clinical trials.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee and cosponsor of the bill with Mr. Kennedy and Mrs. Snowe, said it will allow genetic research to prosper without fear the information will be misused or abused.

“We are far better off setting uniform, consistent rules of the road clearly and up front, rather than allowing them to be set piecemeal through litigation,” he said.

Congressional efforts to set federal standards to protect people from genetic discrimination go back more than a decade, to a time when there were only a small number of genetic tests. But since the mapping of the human genome in 2003, people have access to far more information about their hereditary disposition to such medical problems.

Earlier versions of the bill unanimously passed the Senate in 2005 and 2003, but neither was taken up by the House.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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