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Bill banning genetic bias by insurers, employers advances

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Andrew Pollack
New York Times News Service / April 23, 2008

Congress reached an agreement clearing the way for a bill to prohibit discrimination by employers and health insurers on the basis of genetic tests.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who had been almost single-handedly holding up action on the bill, said in an interview yesterday that most of his concerns had been resolved and predicted that the bill would pass soon.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is chairman of the Senate's Health Committee, said a bipartisan agreement had been reached to move the bill to the Senate floor.

Proponents say the law would help usher in an age of genetic medicine, in which DNA tests might help predict if a person is at risk of a disease, allowing action to be taken to prevent it.

Some of the tests already exist, like one for breast cancer risk, and new ones are being introduced almost every month. But backers of the legislation say many people are afraid of taking such tests because they fear the results would be used to deny them employment or health insurance.

"This bill removes a significant obstacle to the advancement of personalized medicine," said Edward Abrahams, the executive director of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, an organization of drug and diagnostic companies, academic institutions, and patient groups.

The agreement would end a 13-year odyssey for the bill, first proposed in 1995 by Louise Slaughter, a House Democrat from western New York, who has been promoting it ever since.

The bill, called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA, has had broad support in Congress but has never managed to pass both houses in the same session.

Last year, the House approved the bill 420 to 3. But this year Coburn had placed a hold on the bill, preventing the Senate from voting on it.

One of Coburn's main concerns was that the bill might subject employers to civil rights lawsuits stemming from disputes over medical coverage. And employers that also finance their own health insurance, he said, might be sued twice.

Coburn, a medical doctor, had called for a "firewall" between the employer and insurance sections of the bill. "We withstood all the criticism we got from lots of people and now we got it fixed," he said.

GINA would make it illegal for health insurers to raise premiums or deny coverage based on genetic information, and would prohibit employers from using such information for decisions on hiring, firing, promotions, or job assignments.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate's Health Committee, says the bill is set to move to the Senate floor.

Agreement in hand

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