Critics claim the bill would remove genetic privacy and discrimination protections provided by the 2008 GINA Act and other federal laws and might cause medical laboratories performing these tests to become embroiled in employee-employer disputes
Pathology groups and clinical laboratories are closely watching how society reacts to information that comes from genetic testing. Thus, the groundswell of opposition against a House bill that would require employees participating in workplace wellness programs to undergo genetic testing, and to share the results with their employers or face higher healthcare premiums, will be of particular interest and could impact the pathology industry as a whole.
Could Clinical Laboratories Become Entangled in Employee-Employer Disputes?
The fast-forming public outcry against lifting privacy protections for genetic testing in the workplace provides the medical laboratory testing industry with more evidence that concerns over genetic discrimination remain at the forefront among healthcare consumers, scientists, and medical professionals, despite growing understanding about the medical applications of genetics tests.
“What this bill would do is completely take away the protections of existing laws,” said Jennifer Mathis, JD, Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in an article published in STAT, a Boston-based life science news site. She says protections provided by the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), as well as those included in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “would be pretty much eviscerated.”
Privacy versus Healthcare Control
The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act (HR 1313¬) is part of the effort by the Republican-led Congress to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which passed the bill on a straight party-line vote on March 8, 2017, said in a statement that HR 1313 would “bring uniformity to the regulation of wellness programs and clarify” that such programs are consistent with existing federal laws.
“All these proposals reflect the principle that individuals should have greater control over their healthcare and the freedom to do what’s best for their families,” Committee Chairperson Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said in a statement.
Opponents of the legislation claim the bill undermines GINA—which when enacted in 2008 was celebrated as the “first major new civil rights bill of the new century”—by removing genetic privacy and nondiscrimination protections. GINA prohibits employers from using genetic information to hire, fire, or promote an employee. And it bars health plans and insurers from using results to deny coverage or charge higher premiums.
Sixty-nine consumer, health, and medical advocacy organizations¬ have banded together to oppose HR 1313 and ask that “the nondiscrimination protections afforded to all Americans by GINA and the ADA” be preserved. They include:
• The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP);
• The Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP); and
• The Genetics Society of America (GSA).
“We strongly oppose any legislation that would allow employers to inquire about employees’ private genetic information, or medical information unrelated to their ability to do their jobs, and to impose draconian penalties on employees who choose to keep that information private,” the organizations stated in their March 7 letter to the House Committee.
Prior to the committee approving the bill, The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) also went on record opposing HR 1313 for “fundamentally undermining the privacy provisions” of GINA and the ADA.
Law Would Allow Penalties on Employees for Not Cooperating
Privacy concerns are just one issue dogging the legislation. The bill also would allow employers to impose financial penalties of up to 30% of the total cost of an employee’s health insurance plan on workers who do not participate in genetic testing required by their workplace wellness program. Using the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey as a guide, in a press release the ASHG estimated employees could be charged an extra $5,443 in annual premiums if they chose not to share their genetic information.
“If enacted, this bill would force Americans to choose between access to affordable healthcare and keeping their personal genetic and health information private,” Derek Scholes, PhD, Director of Science Policy at ASHG, said in the press release. “Employers would be able to coerce employees into providing their genetic and health information and that of their families, even their children.”
A unnamed spokesperson for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce defended the legislation in an interview with CNBC, claiming opponents were intentionally misrepresenting the bill’s intent.
“Those who are opposed to the bill are spreading false information in a desperate attempt to deny employees the choice to participate in a voluntary program that can reduce health insurance costs and encourage healthy lifestyle choices,” she told CNBC. She pointed to the HR 1313 fact sheet, which states the legislation “reaffirms existing law to allow employee wellness programs to be tied to responsible financial incentives.”
The “existing law” the source is referring to is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which the Obama administration made law in 2010 in support of employer wellness programs as part of its push to encourage American’s to take responsibility for their healthcare. As written, the ACA already empowers employers to require employees who wish to participate in their company’s wellness programs to undergo genetic testing, the spokesperson reiterated.
Why Medical Laboratories Should Track the Progress of This Proposed Law
Clinical laboratory managers will want to watch the progress of this proposed legislation. The possibility exists that, if a lab performed a genetic test for a patient, and that patient later got into a dispute with the employer wanting access to those genetic test results, the lab could find itself embroiled in that dispute if the employer took legal action to compel the laboratory to reveal those test results. That scenario is a long way from becoming reality, but it does illustrate why this law, if enacted, could prove troublesome for the nation’s medical laboratories.
At this year’s Executive War College (EWC), which takes place on May 2-3 in New Orleans, a special panel discussion with four attorneys experienced in lab and pathology law will discuss emerging legal and compliance issues that involve medical laboratory testing. This proposed bill and other new genetic testing issues will be among the topics addressed by the attorneys on this panel.
—Andrea Downing Peck