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Wednesday, February 10, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 90

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Genetic discrimination: a present danger?

Records could be used for job and insurance bias

By Miriam Garcia
Daily Cougar Staff

It is a premise around which many science fiction stories have been formed: job and insurance discrimination based on personal genetic information and the use of that information for personal gain.

Companies may not hire individuals who are predisposed to suffer from certain hereditary diseases, insurance companies may not sell policies to them and unscrupulous individuals could cash in on the genetic records of themselves or others.

But such concerns are no longer a future threat for those who believe their genetic heritage has made them the targets of unfair treatment.

A 1996 survey found that 22 percent of persons with genetic disorders believed they were denied insurance due to the disorders, and 13 percent believed they were denied a job or discriminated against in a job due to a genetic condition.

State and federal laws protect against genetic discrimination in employment and insurance. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, for example, prohibits self-insured health plans and commercial insurance from charging higher rates or decreasing benefits based on genetic factors.

Prior to this act, all self-insured health plans were unregulated, and commercial insurance was regulated by the state.

Also, the Equal Opportunity Commission took the position that discrimination based on genetic predisposition violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. However the issue has not been ruled on by any court.

Moreover, experts say current legislation does little to regulate the misuse of genetic information, and UH Law Center Research Professor of Health Law and Policy Ronald L. Scott said genetic discrimination is hard to prove.

Scott said there is a lot of legislative discussion on the subject, but it is clear that people feel there is no adequate protection.

"Many people do not submit to genetic testing because of fear of discrimination in the workplace," he said.

Texas legislation aids in preventing genetic discrimination by insurers and employers. A group health benefit plan may request the applicant to submit to a genetic test with the enrollment application only if the plan notifies the applicant that a genetic test is required, discloses the proposed use of the test results to the applicant and obtains the applicant's written consent to the test.

The group health benefit plan may not use the genetic information to reject, deny, limit, cancel, refuse to renew, increase the premiums or affect eligibility for coverage.

Texas law also prohibits the use of genetic information for discrimination in employment and the issuance of occupational licenses. It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation on the basis of the individual's genetic information or the individual's refusal to submit to a genetic test.

However, that provision only applies to information from genetic testing and excludes information obtained through family health records.

And the worries do not end with those concerned with rising insurance costs based on genetic testing. Insurance companies are troubled by the idea that people will cash in on knowledge of their genetic predisposition to a disease.

"Some people who know private information from genetic testing will stock up on life insurance," explained UH Associate Professor of Law Seth Chandler.

Chandler said people can sell their life insurance to anyone who will keep the monthly payments and assign themselves the beneficiary.

For example, someone who knows by their genetic records that they are going to die in a short time could buy a life insurance policy without disclosing any information to the insurance company. That person could then sell the policy to someone else for less than the insurance is worth. The purchaser -- who becomes the beneficiary -- will then receive the full amount the insurance is worth upon the insured person's death, while the policy holder receives money immediately.

"Because of that type of 'investment,'" Chandler said, "There is a stronger argument to allow life insurance (to) find genetic information than (there) is to allow health insurance."
 

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