By Rob Waters and Aliza Marcus
April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Companies and health insurers would be forbidden to use the results of genetic tests to deny people jobs or medical coverage under legislation approved 95-0 today by the U.S. Senate.
The measure, an amended version of one the House passed a year ago, is intended to protect people from discrimination based on DNA tests showing a genetic predisposition to disease. The House is expected to accept the Senate changes, and President George W. Bush
is expected to sign the legislation.
Genetic tests can help predict a person's likelihood of getting cancers and other diseases and are used by researchers seeking new treatments. The legislation would bar insurers from using test results to deny coverage or raise premiums. Employers would be blocked from collecting genetic information on workers and using results in hiring or firing. This will enable people to get tested without fear of repercussion, supporters said.
``Up until now, our laws have not kept pace with emerging technology,'' Senator Olympia Snowe
, a Maine Republican, said in an e-mailed statement after the vote. ``What good are genetic breakthroughs if their benefits are not realized by those they would benefit?''
Health plans and insurers also would be barred from requiring that patients take particular gene tests.
``This bill recognizes that discrimination based on a person's genetic identity is just as unacceptable as discrimination based on a person's race or religion,'' Senator Edward Kennedy
, a Massachusetts Democrat, said. ``The administration cooperated and we are grateful for its support.''
, secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, said he hoped the House would move quickly to pass the measure.
``No American should have to worry that their genetic information will affect their ability to get health insurance or a job,'' Leavitt said in an e-mailed statement. ``New advances in medical research have been accompanied by an uneasiness about how this information will be used -- and that is a barrier we must remove.''
The legislation would make it easier for scientists working to uncover links between genetics and common diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, Kathy Hudson
, director of the Washington-based Genetics and Public Policy Center
at Johns Hopkins University, said in a telephone interview.
More than 90 percent of people in the U.S. surveyed by the center say one of their biggest concerns about taking part in such medical research is the possibility that their genetic information will be used against them, Hudson said.
``Now, researchers will be able to say no, it won't happen,'' Hudson said.
The legislation also removes an obstacle that keeps some people from getting tested to find out whether they have a high risk of developing diseases such as breast or colon cancer, said Gregory Critchfield
, president of Myriad Genetics Laboratories, a unit of Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics Inc
``If we talk to patients who have decided not to be tested, the No. 1 reason given by those individuals for not being tested is the fear that they might possibly be discriminated against,'' Critchfield said in a telephone interview yesterday.
The issue became personal for David Resnick, a Boston attorney who works with local hospitals and researchers. His mother died 10 years ago of ovarian cancer and he wondered whether he might be a carrier of genes that may boost the chances of a man developing prostate cancer. The genes increase a woman's risk of breast cancer.
He spoke with genetics counselors at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
in Boston about whether to get tested and agonized over what they told him.
``They explained to me that there is no guarantee that there wouldn't be genetic discrimination,'' he said in a telephone interview today. ``I didn't get the test done.''
The legislation should help assure patients that their genetic information can't be ``misused,'' Karen Ignagni
, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, the Washington trade association, said in an e-mailed statement.
Lawmakers will follow the measure's implementation to ensure that people's privacy is respected, Senator Chris Dodd
, a Connecticut Democrat, said.
``We will not hesitate to revisit the bill,'' he said on the Senate floor.
More than a dozen companies sell genetic tests, including Servx, DNA Direct, Roche Holding AG
, Genelex and Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings
Years of Effort
The bill was first introduced in the House 13 years ago by Representative Louise Slaughter
, a Democrat from Rochester, New York. After its passage last year by the House, Senate action was blocked by Senator Tom Coburn
, a doctor and Republican from Oklahoma. Coburn was concerned the bill would be a ``trial lawyer boon'' that would encourage lawsuits against employers and insurers, Coburn spokesman Don Tatro said in an e-mail.
Coburn allowed a vote after changes were made easing his concerns, Tatro said.