Law bans genetics-based decisions at work

WASHINGTON — The first federal anti-discrimination law in nearly 20 years takes effect today, prohibiting employers from hiring, firing or determining promotions based on genetic makeup.

Starting Dec. 7, group health insurers will not be allowed to consider a person's genetics — such as predisposition for Parkinson's disease — to set insurance rates or deny coverage.

Not since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has the federal government implemented such far-reaching workplace protections. Stuart Ishimaru, acting chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said in a statement that the law reaffirms the idea that people have a right to be judged solely on merit.

"No one should be denied a job or the right to be treated fairly in the workplace based on fears that he or she may develop some condition in the future," he said.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a nonprofit advocacy group for small businesses, filed concerns about the law in April with the commission.

The concerns included whether employers who "innocently discover" genetic information about their workers still may be held liable for having that information in their files, the "confusing" interplay of other federal statutes and the lack of an exception for publicly available genetic information on the Internet.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, said his association originally supported the bill, but that the resulting regulations ultimately will disrupt efforts to stay healthy through wellness and disease management programs.