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Senate OKs bill barring genetic discrimination
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill barring employers and insurers from discriminating against people based on their genetics won unanimous passage in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, moving one step from final congressional approval.
The Senate voted 95 to 0 to pass the bipartisan bill. It is supported by the White House and health insurers but opposed by business interests including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Scientists are learning increasing amounts about the genetic basis of illnesses ranging from cancer to diabetes to heart disease, and tests are being developed to assess a person's predisposition to them.
Bill supporters sought to make sure these test results are not be used against people by employers or insurers unwilling to accept the burden of paying to treat costly diseases.
"Discrimination based on a person's genetic identity is just as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of race or religion," said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, calling it the century's first major new civil rights bill.
The measure would prohibit health insurers from rejecting coverage or raising premiums for healthy people based on their genetic predisposition to develop a disease. It also would bar health insurers from requiring a person to take a genetic test that might reveal a predisposition for illness.
It would prohibit employers, unions and employment agencies from using genetic information in employee hiring, firing, compensation or promotion decisions.
The House of Representatives in April 2007 passed a version of the bill, 420 to 3. Because the bill passed by the Senate is a bit different, it now goes back to the House for final congressional passage, with a vote expected early next week. It then would go to President George W. Bush to sign into law.
Many health, medical and scientific groups back the bill. Supporters said a person's genetic information should be used only by patients and doctors to guide medical decisions.
By prohibiting improper use of genetic information, the bill also encourages people to undergo genetic testing that might help lead to early treatment and prevention of diseases, supporters said. People have been reluctant to undergo genetic testing out of fear that test results could be used against them by employers or insurers, they added.
"We are making a statement and taking a stand, saying as we look to the future that genetic discrimination will not be allowed to flourish, to take root, to stand between Americans and the vast potential that genetic information can provide for a greater quality of life," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican and chief Senate sponsor.
"I think it will be a very, very strong deterrent against genetic discrimination and will provide remarkable reassurance to a public who has been quite edgy about this that it is now safe to find out information about DNA without having it used against you," added Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the U.S. government's National Human Genome Research Institute.
Legislation barring genetic discrimination was first introduced in Congress in 1995 by Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. It won unanimous votes in the Senate in 2003 and 2005, but the House did not act that the time.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing 3 million businesses of all sizes, fears the bills will impose a new layer of medical privacy regulations, permitting states to set their own perhaps different rules and allowing excessive suit damages, he said.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Doina Chiacu)
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