New US Bill may compel staff to go for genetic testing

Proposed law lets firms financially penalise those who don't give hereditary medical info

WASHINGTON • Employers in the United States could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programmes, if a Bill approved by a House committee becomes law.

Employers, in general, do not have that power under existing federal laws that protect genetic privacy and non-discrimination. But the Bill passed last Wednesday by a House committee would allow employers to do so if the information is collected as part of workplace wellness programmes.

These programmes - which offer workers a range of carrots and sticks to monitor and improve their health, such as lowering cholesterol - have become increasingly popular.

Some firms offer health insurance discounts to staff who complete health-risk assessments, while others might charge more for smoking.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers can discount health insurance premiums by up to 50 per cent for staff who voluntarily participate in a wellness programme.

The Bill is being reviewed by other House committees and must be considered by the Senate; it received strong criticism from House Democrats.

Nearly 70 organisations, representing consumer, health and medical advocacy groups, said the Bill, if enacted, would undermine basic privacy provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or Gina.

Congress passed Gina to prohibit discrimination by health insurers and employers based on the information people carry in their genes.

An exception allows staff to provide the information as part of voluntary wellness programmes, but the law says employee participation must be entirely voluntary.

But the latest Bill would allow firms to impose penalties of up to 30 per cent of the total cost of the employee's health insurance on those who choose to keep such information private.

Said American Society of Human Genetics director of science policy Derek Scholes: "It's a terrible Hobson's choice between affordable health insurance and protecting one's genetic privacy."

A House committee spokesman said those opposing the Bill "are spreading false information in a desperate attempt to deny employees the choice to participate in a voluntary programme that can reduce health insurance costs and encourage healthy lifestyle choices".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'New US Bill may compel staff to go for genetic testing'. Print Edition | Subscribe