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US Senate passes genetic discrimination bill

17 October 2003
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 230

After seven years of negotiation, US Senators have voted 95-0 in favour of new laws that will prevent employers and insurers from using personal genetic information. The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, where supporters of a similar proposal say they have the backing of 221 of its 435 members, the Los Angeles Times reports. The lead sponsor of the companion legislation, Democrat Louise Slaughter, said she would urge fellow House members to support the Senate bill rather than her own, to ease its passage into law. The White House issued a statement last week backing the Senate measure, saying: 'Unwarranted use of genetic information, and the fear of potential discrimination, threatens both society's ability to use new genetic technologies to improve human health and the ability to conduct the very research needed to understand, treat and prevent diseases'.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning genetic discrimination, reports Science magazine. But the proposed new federal legislation would comprehensively ban all employers, public and private health insurance providers and employment training programs from making decisions based on someone's genetic information. 'It's about all of us. You could say this was a bill for people with DNA, said Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute. 'This is the bill for people with flawed DNA. That's all of us too' he added. Collins, who leads the international effort to read the entire human genome, said that fears of genetic discrimination had already stopped people from taking part in genetic research studies on breast cancer and colon cancer. However, not everyone welcomed the new proposals: the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) called the bill 'well-intentioned' but 'unwise'. 'Health insurers continue to believe it will only add unnecessary and costly regulatory burdens without, in any way, improving consumer protections' said HIAA president Donald Young.

The new law would stop health insurers from denying coverage or raising premiums based on the results of a genetic test, and would stop them from asking people to take such tests. It would stop all employers from using genetic tests in any hiring, firing or promoting decisions, and would also set out rules to guide employers in using genetic testing to monitor the health effects of workplace hazards, such as toxic chemicals. 'This is a major milestone towards giving the American public the kind of protection they need and deserve' said Collins.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Senate bars gene bias
Science |  17 October 2003
Senate blocks genetic discrimination
LA Times |  15 October 2003
Senate passes genetic equality bill
The Washington Post |  15 October 2003
Senate passes genetic nondiscrimination bill
Reuters |  14 October 2003
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