What is genetic discrimination, and are there laws to protect people from this type of discrimination?

Genetic discrimination occurs when people are treated differently by insurance companies or employers because they have a gene mutation that increases their risk of a disease, such as cancer. However, in 2008, GINA was enacted to protect U.S. citizens against discrimination based on their genetic information in relation to health insurance and employment . The parts of the law relating to health insurers will take effect between May 2009 and May 2010, and those relating to employers will take effect by November 2009. The law does not cover life insurance, disability insurance, and long-term care insurance. In addition, the law does not cover members of the military.

Some of the protections under GINA with regard to health insurance include the following:

  • Premiums or contributions to a group health plan cannot be increased based on the genetic information of an individual(s) enrolled in the plan.
  • Insurers cannot require an individual or family member to undergo a genetic test before enrollment in a group health plan.
  • Insurers cannot request, require, or purchase genetic information about an individual before the person’s enrollment in a group health plan or in connection with that person’s enrollment in the plan.
  • Health insurers cannot use genetic information as the only basis upon which to claim a pre-existing condition is present and, therefore, to deny coverage.

Some of the protections under GINA with regard to employment include the following:

  • Employers cannot refuse to hire and cannot fire individuals based on their genetic information.
  • Employers cannot discriminate against employees with regard to salary, terms and conditions of employment, privileges, and opportunities for the future because of their genetic information.
  • Employers cannot request, require, or purchase genetic information about an employee except under specific circumstances.
  • Employers cannot disclose an employee's genetic information except under specific circumstances.

Before GINA was passed, many states enacted laws against genetic discrimination. The amount of protection provided by these laws varies widely from state to state. GINA sets a minimum standard of protection that must be met by all states. It does not weaken the protections provided by any state law.

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