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GOP-Sponsored Bill Could Help Companies Access Your Genetic Information

11 March 2017, 10:26 am EST By Livia Rusu Tech Times
A new GOP-sponsored bill could grant companies access to their employees' genetic information. Both Democrats and advocacy groups have expressed opposition to the bill.  ( Brendan Smialowski | Getty Images )

A new Congress bill could make it harder for workers to prevent employers from accessing their personal genetic and medical information. The bill could also increase the financial penalties for individuals who opt out of workplace wellness programs.

The bill, proposed by Republicans, suggests that companies should gather genetic data from workers and their families more easily, and it was introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Companies Could Gain Access To Employees' Genetic Data

While still under review by other House committees, the bill was already met with fierce opposition from different entities, among which were consumer, privacy advocacy, and health groups. Additionally, Democrats collectively opposed it.

The bill was criticized for many reasons, among which is that it undermines existing laws that aim to protect personal medical information, preventing employers from using it.

Currently, employers are not allowed to access genetic information. This kind of power is prohibited by a 2008 genetic privacy and nondiscrimination law, popular under the name of GINA. However, the new bill manages to avoid the legislation in force, saying that it doesn't apply when it comes to genetic tests that are part of a "workplace wellness" program.

The bill, HR 1313, was approved by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on March 8. All 22 Republicans supported it, and all 17 Democrats opposed. As much of the media focus has fallen on the Affordable Care Act, this bill was relatively unobserved.

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the collection of information about the manifested disease or disorder of a family member shall not be considered an unlawful acquisition of genetic information with respect to another family member as part of a workplace wellness program described in paragraph (1) or (2) offered by an employer," noted the bill.

As wellness programs are more used across the corporate world, employees are being asked by companies to undergo health screenings, as well as medical assessments. However, employees can currently opt out of these programs, as personal information specific to an individual should not be shared with a company directly to prevent people from being discriminated against or fired when suffering from a certain serious medical condition.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has strongly opposed companies' use of employees' personal medical information, claiming some of the employers have used wellness programs in an inappropriate way. However, the courts have largely approved of the employers' arguments.

In May 2016, the commission issued final rules concerning the regulations, after companies had complained these were vague and confusing.

Obamacare And Employees' Obligations

At the same time, employers were favored during the Obama administration. As part of the Affordable Care Act, employers had the ability to charge their employees 30 percent, and even up to 50 percent, for health insurance should they refuse to take part in voluntary programs. The programs often involved screenings for cholesterol and other general health information. Questionnaires were also handed out to employees in order to gather data about their health status, including plans of getting pregnant.

Should the bill be passed, employers would be allowed to offer higher incentives. They could modify the cost to cover the family up to 30 percent, as opposed to 30 percent for individual coverage, as it is now.

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