Gore wants ban on gene discrimination

WASHINGTON (AP) — American companies could collect and use genetic information about employees on a voluntary basis only to monitor potential workplace health hazards under legislation proposed Tuesday by Vice President Al Gore.
Genetic tests could not be a condition for hiring or employee benefits such as health insurance, and discrimination against employees with genetic predispositions to disease would be barred.
“It is clear that cracking the genetic code would be of significantly less benefit if we allow our moral code to become cracked as well,” said Gore in a speech to members of the Genome Action Coalition, which promotes public support of gene research.
Heidi Wagner, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Healthcare Leadership Council, which is organizing a national coalition of concerned employers, said the law proposed by Gore is too sweeping, considering that the practical applications for genetics are still largely unknown.
“Genetic testing is so new. My concern is that when the federal government decides to get involved, though well-intended, there might be some unintended effects,” Wagner said, adding that laws against other types of workplace discrimination may already provide enough protection.
But Gore said that although use of genetic testing to predict diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy is not yet widespread, prejudice is already becoming a problem.
“The fear of genetic discrimination is prompting Americans to avoid those genetic tests that are now available that could literally save their lives,” Gore said.
The vice president retold the story of a woman who claimed she was fired when her boss learned she was genetically predisposed to Huntington’s Disease. The woman said on a 1996 episode of CBS’ “60 Minutes” that she had had a genetic screening because a relative had the hereditary ailment, which causes deterioration of the nervous system.
A survey by the Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. found that 15 percent of employers plan to begin checking the genetic status of prospective employees by 2000.
“Even hidden differences among people contain the potential for unleashing the impulse to compare and discriminate,” Gore said.
He said he and President Clinton would send a bill to Capitol Hill this year that would:
ù Bar employers from requiring or requesting genetic tests or genetic information as a condition of employment or benefits.
ù Keep employers from using genetic information to discriminate against, limit, segregate, or classify employees in a way that would deprive them of opportunities.
ù Generally prevent companies from obtaining or disclosing genetic information about employees or potential employees in most situations.
The exception would be information collected with workers’ consent and used only for research or when workplace safety is in question — for example if a substance workers are exposed to is suspected of causing genetic damage. Such information would have to be kept in confidential files separate from regular employment records.
Last summer, the Clinton administration sent legislation to Congress to prevent health insurers from using genetic information to deny coverage or raise premiums.