WASHINGTON President George W. Bush on Wednesday signed a law that prohibits discrimination against anyone whose genetic information shows a predisposition to illnesses such as cancer or heart disease.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, passed by overwhelming majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, bans health insurers and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic information.
As he signed the legislation in the Oval Office, Bush praised Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was instrumental in pushing the legislation through Congress. The Massachusetts Democrat was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor this week.
Bush said he wanted to pay homage to Kennedy "who has worked for over a decade to get this piece of legislation to a president's desk. All of us are so pleased that Senator Kennedy has gone home, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family."
The legislation was first introduced 13 years ago and had languished in Congress until winning broad support on and off Capitol Hill this year. Legislation barring genetic discrimination was first introduced in Congress in 1995 by Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat.
"In other words, it protects our citizens from having genetic information misused, and this bill does so without undermining the basic premise of the insurance industry," Bush said.
The law bars health insurers from rejecting coverage or raising premiums for healthy people based on personal or familial genetic predisposition to develop a particular disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart ailments or others.
"While the impact may not be immediate, its contribution to the fight against heart disease and stroke in the long term will be considerable," said Dr. Daniel Jones, president of the American Heart Association.
The law prohibits employers from using genetic information in hiring, firing, pay or promotion decisions. It also forbids health insurers from requiring a genetic test.
Supporters of the law said people have declined genetic tests that could help lead to treatment of an ailment out of fear they could lose their jobs or insurance coverage.
The measure was supported by health insurers but opposed by business interests including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"This legislation also ensures that patients can continue to benefit from health plans' innovative early detection and care coordination programs that improve the safety and quality of care," America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry group, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Beech)