Members of the Senate voted 95-0 Thursday for H.R. 493, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
The bill, which would bar employers and health insurers from discriminating based on the results of genetic testing, was supported by major insurance industry groups.
Members of the House approved the bill by a 420-3 vote.
Supporters argued on the Senate floor that the bill could help advance the current understanding of genetic information.
“We are going to make a difference in health care for this country,” said Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo. “Not in sick care, but in health care.”
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said “the need has never been greater” for encouraging Americans to make use of genetic testing to further scientific understanding.
The benefits will not be realized if people fear taking genetic tests “because they fear discrimination by an employer or an insurance provider,” Dodd said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called H.R. 493 the “first major new civil rights bill of the new century.”
Sen. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., temporarily blocked debate of the bill on the Senate floor because of concerns that the bill could expose employers to litigation over medical coverage disputes.
Supporters eased those concerns by adding a “firewall” between the portions of the bill relating to employers and the portions relating to governing insurers.
John Greene, a vice president at the National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va., said the firewall improved the bill.
Overall, Greene said, H.R. 493 “is a good compromise that isn’t going to impact the costs of insurance” but will allow for better access to genetic testing.
That sentiment was echoed by Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington.
“While the legislation gives patients’ the peace of mind to know that their genetic information can’t be misused, it promotes informed health care decision-making by patients and their doctors and allows patients continued access to state-of-the art health insurance plan programs that support early prevention and coordination of care,” Ignagni said.
Insurers’ concern about genetic testing “has always been about definitions,” Green said.
To make sure that an insurer will cover necessary drugs and treatments, “you have to be careful how you define what makes a genetic test,” Greene said.
In addition, “in most cases, a genetic test doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to manifest” the disease in question, Greene said.