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GOP: Give Companies Access To Workers' Genetic Tests

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 currently bans companies from having access to their employees' genetic information, but House Republicans are working to change that with a new bill.

The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act would allow employers to demand that workers submit to genetic testing, or pay thousands in penalties, according to STAT News. The act would make genetic testing a part of company wellness programs.

Additionally, the companies would be able to see the genetic test results, which would not include the workers' names. However, in a small company it would not be hard to match the genetic results to an employee.

"What this bill would do is completely take away the protections of existing laws," Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, told STAT.

Mathis added that privacy protections in GINA and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act "would be pretty much eviscerated."

The American Benefits Council, which represents Fortune 500 companies and other large businesses, told Congress in early March that these patient privacy laws "put at risk the availability and effectiveness of workplace wellness programs," and deprive employees of "improved health and productivity."

The American Benefits Council did not respond to questions about how a lack of employee genetic information interferes with company wellness programs.

The notion of successful workplace wellness programs was originally promoted by Safeway CEO Steven Burd in June 2009, notes New York magazine.

After Burd's words of praise caught on with Republicans and Democrats, the so-called "Safeway Amendment" was added to the Affordable Care Act.

The amendment currently allows employers to increase the premiums of their employees' health insurance by 30 percent -- or by 50 percent if they smoke -- if those employees fail or refuse to take part in "voluntary" workplace wellness programs.

STAT notes those workplace wellness programs often include screening employees' health conditions, asking questions about employees' personal habits and asking employees if they are planning to get pregnant.

The problem, according to New York magazine, was that Burd's original assertions about the success of workplace wellness programs were "composed almost entirely of lies."

New York magazine and Reuters both noted there is little to no evidence that workplace wellness programs significantly reduce health care costs by making employees healthier.

It's not clear why companies would have workplace wellness programs if they don't actually improve employee health or reduce costs. Critics believe it is a way of shifting health care costs off corporations and on to their employees with the financial penalties.

Larry Levitt, a health policy expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Reuters: "There seems little question that you can make wellness programs save money with high enough penalties that essentially shift more health care costs to workers."

Sources: STAT, Reuters, New York / Photo credit: Prometheus1~enwiki/Wikimedia Commons

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