Legislative roadblocks that have prevented a federal genetic discrimination bill from passing may soon disappear. The new Democratic led Congress has indicated that passage of the bill is a legislative priority, and committees in both the House and Senate are expected to take up the legislation in upcoming weeks. President Bush has already indicated his support for the main bill pending in both chambers.
The genetic discrimination bill arose from concerns that followed completion of the Human Genome Project. Employee rights advocates became concerned that employers and insurers with access to individual employee’s and applicants’ genetic profiles would refuse to hire or insure persons with potential susceptibility to genetic conditions and diseases that could result in lost productivity or expensive medical claims. While actual claims of genetic discrimination have been rare, several high profile claims relating to employee insurability have made headlines. A number of states already prohibit genetic discrimination in hiring and insurance underwriting.
Virtually no one argues that employers should be allowed to discriminate in hiring based on an employee’s or applicant’s genetic profile. Such discrimination is probably already illegal under the “regarded as” disabled portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some employers have expressed concerns over legislation that would prevent the collection and standard usage of employee medical information when required by business necessity. Other groups fear legislative provisions that would circumvent EEOC procedures or allow unlimited punitive damages.
Even though very few employers screen for applicants’ genetic profiles, some form of legislation restricting this practice is likely to become law this year. Employers should review how any such legislation may change their pre-employment medical screening practices, or group medical insurance plans.