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Senate votes 98-0 to ban genetic discrimination

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate approved without opposition Feb. 17 a bill to restrict insurance companies and employers from discriminating against Americans based on their genetic information.

Senators voted 98-0 for the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, S. 306. The legislation would bar 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. Privacy and confidentiality protections would be extended to genetic data.

Supporters of the measure said advances in genetic testing have benefited human beings by enabling doctors to prevent afflictions based on such information. Such genetic data also can prove harmful, proponents of the bill said.

“If people run a risk of losing jobs, promotions or insurance policies on the basis of their genes, many will avoid getting tested and learning about them,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said from the floor before the vote.

“By acting now, we are averting widespread discrimination before it happens…. Congress should be forward thinking in the policies we set, instead of waiting until catastrophe looms. This is not a political or partisan issue. It is a matter of civil rights.”

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, the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R.-Maine, said from the floor.

The Senate voted 95-0 for such legislation in 2003, but the House of Representatives never acted on a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D.-N.Y., even though a majority of members were cosponsors.

Snowe and Sen. James Jeffords, I.-Vt., introduced the first genetic nondiscrimination bill in 1996.

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