The US Senate has unanimously approved a bill that would ban employers and insurers from using genetic information. Senators voted 98-0 in favour of the bill last Thursday, although it now faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives. In 2003, the Senate passed a nearly identical bill by 95-0, but the legislation was never voted on by the House. Both the 2003 bill and the bill passed last week were sponsored by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.
Many individual states have already passed laws banning genetic discrimination. In October 2003, the US Senate approved the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act, after seven years of negotiation. The proposed federal legislation would have banned all employers, public and private health insurance providers and employment training programs from making decisions based on someone's genetic information. However, despite the fact that more than half the House supported a companion bill sponsored by Republican Louise Slaughter, the legislation was never brought to a vote in the House of Representatives.
The latest bill is entitled S-603 - 'a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of genetic information with respect to health insurance and employment'. It would ban health insurers from raising premiums because an individual has taken a genetic test, or has sought genetic counselling. They would also be banned from refusing people coverage on the basis of genetic information, and from requiring individuals to take tests. Employers, agencies or training programs would also be banned from discriminating against an individual on the basis of genetic information.
The bill would allow the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services to take action against health insurance plans that violate its requirements. Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, said her group was not opposed to the new bill. But a business coalition lead by the US Chamber of Commerce says that there is no evidence of workplace discrimination based on genetic information. It claims that basing laws on potential problems of this nature is 'fraught with opportunities for unintended consequences, unnecessary regulation and unwarranted litigation'.
The new bill has the support of the White House. 'It has been astonishing to me that the Senate can pass this unanimously and the White House supports it, and a couple of outside groups can block this', said Slaughter. Supporters hope that if it becomes law, the bill will allay fears about the potential for discrimination, and encourage people to take part in genetic research, as well as to take advantage of new genetic technologies.