Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Senate unanimously voted yesterday to prevent employers and health insurance providers from discriminating against applicants on the basis of their genetic information.

Federal law already bars discrimination on the basis of skin color and sex, but senators want to make sure that the information that dictates those physical characteristics can’t be used as a vehicle for prejudice.

“A person’s genetic information is the blueprint to their very being,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat. “It is absolutely essential that in this time of fantastic scientific advances and discovery that this information be used for the purpose of preventing, treating and healing diseases, and not as a basis for discrimination.”

The bill, which has been championed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for seven years, passed on a 98-0 vote.

“Today’s vote is a resounding victory for patients, workers and consumers across America,” said Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican.

He said the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act is forward-thinking, because current technology is not sophisticated enough to differentiate which genes on human chromosomes account for hair color, eye color or the bill’s real target, genetic precursors for certain health risks and diseases.

Genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, which causes the body to produce excessive mucus in the lungs, or sickle cell anemia, which creates sickle-shaped red blood cells that damage blood vessels, require expensive, long-term medical care.

Mr. Frist, a physician, said if health insurers developed a pre-application test to find specific genes that cause these types of diseases, they would be less inclined to insure certain people or charge higher rates for those at risk.

He said many Americans have avoided genetic testing for such diseases for fear that their employer or health insurance carrier will discover the 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,” Mr. Frist said.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year on a 95-0 vote, but the House leadership did not address the bill.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, said the legislation can wait no longer, given the rapid advancement in DNA sequence testing in criminal cases and other genetic testing technology.

“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,” she said.

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