Congress sent US President George W. Bush a bill that forbids employers and insurance companies from rejecting job applications, promotions or healthcare coverage or setting premiums based on genetic test results.
Bush was expected soon to sign the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, passed by Congress on Thursday, which has been characterized by lawmakers and advocates as the first major civil rights act of the 21st century.
Federal law already bans discrimination based on race or sex.
“Your skin color, your gender, all of those are part of your DNA,” said Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute. “Shouldn’t the rest of your DNA also fall under that protective umbrella?”
Researchers supported the bill because Americans have been refusing to take genetic tests or have been using false names and paying cash because they did not want the information used against them by their employer or insurance company, Collins said.
The bill would prohibit health insurance companies from using genetic information to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility. Similarly, employers could not use genetic information in hiring, firing or promotion decisions.
A 2001 study by the American Management Association showed that almost two-thirds of major US companies require medical examinations of new hires. Fourteen percent conduct tests for susceptibility to workplace hazards, 3 percent for breast and colon cancer and 1 percent for sickle cell anemia, while 20 percent collect information about family medical history.
In the 1970s, several insurers denied coverage to blacks who carried the gene for sickle cell anemia. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California secretly tested workers for sickle cell trait and other genetic disorders from the 1960s through 1993; workers were told it was routine cholesterol screening.
Sickle cell anemia almost exclusively afflicts black people.
In another incident, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co paid 36 employees US$2.2 million in 2002 to settle a lawsuit in which the workers claimed the company sought to test them genetically without their knowledge after they had submitted work-related injury claims. The railroad denied that it violated the law or engaged in discrimination.