A little-noticed bill moving through Congress would allow companies to require employees to undergo genetic testing or risk paying a penalty of thousands of dollars, and would let employers see that genetic and other health information. Giving employers such power is now prohibited by legislation including the 2008 genetic privacy and nondiscrimination law known as GINA. The new bill gets around that landmark law by stating explicitly that GINA and other protections do not apply when genetic tests are part of a "workplace wellness" program. The bill, HR 1313, was approved by a House committee on Wednesday, with all 22 Republicans supporting it and all 17 Democrats opposed. It has been overshadowed by the debate over the House GOP proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but the genetic testing bill is expected to be folded into a second ACA-related measure containing a grab-bag of provisions that do not affect federal spending, as the main bill does.
A new bill proposed by Republican legislators would allow companies to require their employees to submit to genetic testing and would give employers the ability to demand access to genetic and other health information. The bill-- HR 1313, or the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act--successfully passed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce this week on party lines, with all 22 Republicans supporting the measure and all 17 Democrats opposed. The bill is expected to be included in a larger measure related to the Affordable Care Act that would require approval outside of the Republican's current repeal and replace plan. Currently, allowing employers to access the genetic testing of their employees is prohibited by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Passed in 2008, GINA made it against the law for employers to use genetic information to make employment decisions or to limit or classify employees in any way.
A lab technician handles a sample of DNA at the Genetic Institute Nantes-Atlantique (IGNA) on December 10, 2015 in Nantes, western France. IGNA is one of the first French laboratories of forensic expertise to use DNA evidence to establish the physical characteristics of a suspect. Amid a recent deluge of human-rights concerns and big steps for Big Business, a bill is humbly working its way through Congress that would let employers compel their workers to either provide intimate genetic data or face thousands in penalties. HR 1313, or the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act (PEWPA), could expand companies' ability to acquire genetic and other health information from employees via their DNA through a loophole in extant privacy law known as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). According to the near-annoyingly smart and reliable, nonprofit PBS, PEWPA threatens to side-step privacy protections established under GINA and elsewhere by stating specifically that genetic tests required as part of a "workplace wellness" program aren't entitled to such protections.
Employers could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs if a bill approved by a House committee becomes law. Employers, in general, don't have that power under existing federal laws that protect genetic privacy and nondiscrimination. But a bill passed last week by a House committee would allow employers to get around that if the information is collected as part of workplace wellness programs. Workplace wellness programs -- which offer workers a variety of carrots and sticks to monitor and improve their health, such as lowering cholesterol -- have become increasingly popular among companies. Others might charge people more for smoking.
We've reported before on the scam that is the workplace "wellness" program. These are ostensibly voluntary initiatives that aim to goad employees into healthier lifestyles -- say through diet, exercise and smoking cessation -- by offering them a discount on their health insurance premiums or some other benefit. A bill now making its way through Congress would give employers an even stronger hand in forcing workers to give up their privacy. The "Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act," which sailed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week on a 22-17 party-line vote with Republicans in the majority, is "an ugly piece of legislation," warns Nicholas Bagley of the University of Michigan. The measure, he reports, would "effectively allow businesses to require their employees to disclose lots of sensitive medical data, including their genetic information."