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House passes genetic discrimination ban

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives has voted nearly unanimously to prevent insurers and employers from discriminating against Americans based on their genetic information.

The House voted 420-3 in favor of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act April 25. The legislation, H.R. 493, would restrict health insurance companies from using genetic information to deny coverage or charge higher premiums to healthy people. It also would prohibit employers from using such knowledge in hiring, firing and other employment decisions.

The measure would expand protections for medical privacy and confidentiality to include genetic data.

Pro-life members of the House had expressed concerns that the bill in early drafts might not protect unborn children or embryos produced by in vitro fertilization from discrimination based on tests done before birth or implantation, respectively. Some representatives also questioned whether the bill’s protections would include children in the process of being adopted. Those concerns were addressed in revisions made to the proposal before a floor vote, pro-lifers said.

C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Chicago-area Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, commended the House vote.

“While the [bill] is certainly no panacea, it is a good start,” said Mitchell, a consultant on biomedical issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a written statement. “Protection against the misuse of genetic information will require our utmost diligence.”

The ERLC had listed the bill as one of its legislative priorities for 2007.

Supporters of the measure have said advances in genetic testing have benefited human beings by enabling doctors to prevent afflictions based on the results. Concerns about the use of information by insurers and employers, however, has caused some Americans to reject the tests. A test that shows a genetic propensity to a disease may cause negative repercussions for an otherwise healthy person in insurance coverage or employment.

When the National Institutes of Health offered women genetic testing for breast cancer risk, nearly 32 percent of those who received the offer refused to be tested because of concerns about insurance discrimination, it was reported in Senate debate in 2005.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and organizations, opposes the House-approved bill. In a March letter to House members, the chamber said the legislation was too broad, would invite “frivolous” lawsuits and would create compliance problems for employers.

The Senate voted unanimously for similar legislation in both 2003 and 2005, but the House failed to hold a floor vote both years. President Bush has signaled he will sign the bill, according to the Genetics and Public Policy Center.

The only House members to vote against the bill April 25 were Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Ron Paul of Texas and Ed Royce of California.

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