President Bush is expected to sign into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) passed last week by Congress. The new law, which has been debated in Congress for 13 years, adds to current federal anti-discrimination laws (including Title VII) prohibitions on employers and insurance companies using genetic tests showing people are at risk of developing cancer, heart disease or other ailments to reject their job applications, promotions or health care coverage, or in setting premiums. Like HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), GINA provides for an exception to use or acquisition of genetic information with the voluntary signed consent of an employee or applicant.
In sum, GINA prohibits health insurance companies from using genetic information to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility. Employers, with very few exceptions, cannot use genetic information in hiring, firing or promotion decisions and must maintain any genetic information strictly confidential in compliance with the ADA (medical records) and HIPAA. As for enforcement, procedures and damages â€“â€“ think ADA. In other words, private employers with fifteen or more employees are subject to GINA. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will be charged with investigating complaints, and the procedure and remedies are mostly identical to other federal anti-discrimination laws.
The law will go into effect in November 2009, by which time the Department of Labor is supposed to have enacted its regulations for GINA.
What in the World Do I Care About Genetics? While genetic testing for employment purposes is not regularly used by most of our clients, most do require post-offer medical examinations and verification of absences and FMLA time. Studies cited in support of GINA show that nearly two-thirds of major U.S. companies require medical examinations of new hires, of which 14% conduct tests for susceptibility to workplace hazards, among other things. The federal government for several years has prohibited the federal government from requiring genetic testing or from considering a person’s genetic information in hiring or promotion decisions. Plus, there are labs actively marketing to employers in connection with disability and workersâ€™ compensations claims. GINA significantly proscribes the use of any testing with a genetic component.
Does Texas Have a Similar State Law? Well, yes, Virginiaâ€¦it does! Texas is one of 31 states (according to National Human Genome Research Institute) that have already adopted laws regarding genetic discrimination in the workplace. Texasâ€™ law has been in effect since 1997. Parallel to GINA, Texas law:
â€¢ Provides for protection against discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, or labor unions based on information about an individual’s genetic characteristics or on the refusal of an individual to take a genetic test or submit a family health history.
â€¢ Provides a civil penalty if a person improperly discloses genetic information.
â€¢ Employers must keep genetic testing confidential unless an individual specifically authorizes release of such information, or unless they are required to release information pursuant to a court order, or otherwise required by law.
What Difference Will This Make If I Donâ€™t Require Genetic Testing? Like any other anti-discrimination law, employers will want to have a clear written policy as well as procedures prohibiting conduct in violations of GINA as well as educate workers on what is not prohibited by the Act.
Does GINA Affect Our Employee Wellness Program? Yes. Under both HIPAA and, now, GINA, employers may use both personal health and genetic information as part of a qualified wellness program. Wellness programs generally reward participants for reaching a desired health outcome â€¦ giving up smoking or losing weight, for example, or carrying out a specified exercise regime. You can see the U.S. Department of Laborâ€™s new rules for creating workplace wellness programs that comply with existing HIPAA law (no doubt soon to be amended to include GINA).
To prevent employers from practicing â€œback door discrimination,â€ a wellness plan must meet very specific requirements. Check with your legal counsel regarding wellness programs to keep your plan â€œlegally healthy.â€
Little Known Fact: Per the National Human Genome Research Institute, everyone probably has at least six genetic mutations placing them at greater risk for some disease. Although these mutations do not necessarily mean that a disease will develop, researchers said, that the person is more likely to get the disease than someone without the genetic mutation.
The House voted 414-1 for GINA last Thursday, a week after the legislation passed the Senate on a 95-0 vote. The only member of Congress to vote against the bill was Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Click here to read the complete text of GINA.