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Insurers oppose new gene rules
Setting the stage for another congressional debate over its policies, the insurance industry said Wednesday it opposes legislation that would prohibit the use of genetic information to deny Americans health insurance.
"We do not need additional legislation," said Donald A. Young, interim president of the Health Insurance Association of America. "It will harm the people it is intended to help."
But a majority of House members disagree, and two House members who are sponsoring the legislation said existing protections are riddled with loopholes. What's more, they said, patients are refusing to disclose information to their physicians for fear insurers will obtain it and deny them coverage.
"Every person has genetic flaws," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y. "As a result, we are all potentially uninsurable. By allowing discrimination to persist, we are simply punishing those people with the bad luck to have [flawed] genes."
Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., the bill's cosponsor, said several studies already show discrimination is taking place. In one, Morella said, 22 percent of respondents said they or a family member had been refused health insurance as the result of a genetic condition.
The Slaughter-Morella legislation would ban the use of genetic information to discriminate in both health insurance and employment. It also would prohibit the collection or disclosure of genetic information without a patient's approval and would provide penalties for those who violate the measure.
The insurance industry's opposition is reminiscent of the position it took five years ago when Congress began considering patient protections in coverage disputes. Patient protections are now overwhelmingly favored by Americans and insurers are widely seen in polls as being on the wrong side of the debate.
Young referred indirectly to the patients' rights debate Wednesday, telling a House committee the industry faces the prospect of state and federal regulations that will drive up health care costs. Beyond that, he said, legislation Congress adopted in 1996 shields Americans from having genetic information used against them if they are seeking health insurance.
But Slaughter and Morella said the 1996 legislation contains so many exceptions that a comprehensive federal law is needed.
Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, agreed. The 1996 law "is a first step in the evolution of federal legislation, but significant gaps remain," Rothenberg said.
Slaughter and Morella have collected 250 cosponsors for their proposal, more than enough to pass the House. A companion plan backed by Sens. Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is awaiting Senate action. It has 23 sponsors.
While the new legislation has strong support, two Republican leaders expressed reservations Wednesday. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., said: "Federal regulation of health insurance and health care is already too complicated to add redundant provisions. We must make sure that what we do in this area doesn't add to the complexity."
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the panel's trade and consumer protection subcommittee, said: "We should not, by regulation, force health care plans or providers to create separate files of information that have to comply with one new regulatory regime after another."