The Burden of Enforcing GINA: EEOC v. Nestle Illustrates One Challenge in Pursuing Genetic Discrimination Claims
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) is a federal law making it illegal for insurers and employers to acquire and to use genetic information in certain contexts. Specifically, Title II of GINA prohibits employers with more than 15 employees, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management training and apprenticeship program committees from using genetic information when making employment decisions (e.g. hiring, firing, promotions, placement, compensation, privileges, seniority, etc).
The employment discrimination provisions took effect on November 21, 2009, with an air of uncertainty, as the Final Rules implementing Title II of GINA were not issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) until a year later (See 75 Fed Reg 68912-68939 [pdf], issued November 9, 2010) and did not take effect until January 10, 2011. (See previous GLR coverage of GINA Title II here and of GINA generally here).
Last month we examined Massachusetts’ proposed Genetic Bill of Rights. Last week, we looked at a similar proposal to expand individuals’ property and privacy rights in genetic information proposed in the Vermont legislature. Today, we head west to California to examine another piece of recently introduced genetic legislation.
A New Padilla Proposal. The California proposal comes from state Senator Alex Padilla. If Padilla’s name sounds familiar, it is likely because he is the same Senator Padilla who introduced a widely discussed “bioinformatics bill” to the California legislature two years ago. That bill (S.B. 482) was drafted with the close participation of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing company 23andMe, and 23andMe and Senator Padilla later co-sponsored a policy forum in San Francisco on “genomics and the consumer” (at which I presented).
Unlike Padilla’s earlier effort, which would have significantly altered the regulatory environment for so-called “post-CLIA bioinformatics services” (basically, genetic interpretation performed after the generation of genetic genotype or sequence data in a CLIA environment), 2011’s effort (S.B. 559 (pdf)) will almost certainly be viewed as a much less controversial proposal.
On January 21, 2011, the Massachusetts Genetic Bill of Rights (MA GBR) (pdf) was introduced before the Massachusetts state legislature. At its core, the proposed legislation establishes property and privacy rights for genetic information and genetic material, while providing protections designed to shield individuals from genetic profiling and other misuses of genetic information.
Taken as a whole, the legislation, if enacted, would confer upon Massachusetts residents a significantly expanded set of genetic rights than exist under current federal law. Below we examine several of the bill’s most noteworthy proposals.
The MA GBR addresses perceived gaps and limitations in the coverage provided by major federal statutes, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by seeking to place genetic information on a par with medical records.
The MA GBR’s provisions set basic limitations on the use, including the commercial use, of personal genetic information that would go above and beyond the user agreements and privacy policies employed by some commercial services. For example, the MA GBR prohibits the use of genetic information for marketing or determining credit worthiness. With the proliferation of genetic information, particularly in consumer or commercial contexts, such basic limitations would help address concerns about the lack of mandatory restrictions regarding the sale, transfer or other use of personal genetic data.
The Personal Property Theory of Personal Genomes. But the MA GBR goes much further than mere consumer protection reforms. Section 1 of the proposed legislation explicitly declares genetic information to be “the exclusive property of the individual from whom the information is obtained.” (emphasis added)
The top news story the past two weeks: the release of hundreds of thousands of confidential American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. While dissecting diplomatic maneuvering is not a traditional area of expertise for the Genomics Law Report, a pair of cables did catch our eye.
The first is primarily a curiosity: the allegation that Chinese authorities are spying on deCode Genetics, Iceland’s most prominent genetic research company and provider of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing service, deCODEme. Nobody seems to know exactly what China is looking to gain by clandestinely exploring Iceland’s genetic genealogy. You are welcome to speculate in the comments.
The second raises broader issues: the revelation that the State Department’s ongoing human intelligence collection directives include requests for “biometric information” on key world leaders, including United Nations arms inspectors, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and key advisors and aides to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A separate cable detailing intelligence collection priorities in Africa’s Great Lakes region clarifies that “biometric information” includes “health [data]…fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.”
Not disclosed in the WikiLeaked cables: why the State Department wants the biometric data or whether any have been successfully obtained.
Surreptitious Testing: An Overview. The cables are, however, a reminder that the law surrounding the surreptitious collection and testing of biometric data, including DNA, remains extremely murky.
As we wrote yesterday, last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued definitive rules and regulations (pdf) with respect to Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). In our previous post we offered a brief overview of the new regulations, as well as some preliminary suggestions for employers just now coming to grips with GINA.
We also promised to take a closer look in today’s post at several substantive features of the EEOC’s new regulations.
Defining the Terms. The EEOC, the government agency generally responsible for enforcing federal employment nondiscrimination laws, was the logical choice to promulgate regulations under GINA’s Title II, which governs the use of genetic information by employers and similar entities. But not all of GINA’s statutory provisions were within the EEOC’s area of expertise.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued its final rules and regulations implementing the employment provisions of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Signed into law in 2008, GINA took effect in two stages in 2009, with Title I (which applies to health insurers and plans) effective in May and Title II (which applies to employers) effective in November.
When GINA was passed, Congress instructed the EEOC to issue final rules and regulations no later than May of 2009 describing how the agency intends to interpret and enforce the legislation. Although the EEOC missed that deadline by a full 18 months, the Commission did issue definitive rules and regulations (pdf) for Title II of GINA last week. (In its defense, the departments responsible for the Title I – Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury – have yet to issue final regulations of their own.) The regulations take effect January 10, 2011.
Reintroducing GINA. Last November, we reported that Title II of GINA had joined ranks with the other federal antidiscrimination laws (the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to name a few), to provide federal protection against workplace discrimination, in this case on the basis of genetic information. Title II of GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in the employment context, and also restricts employers from acquiring or disclosing genetic information.
The clock has run out the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health, & Society (SACGHS). As reported by Turna Ray of Pharmacogenomics Reporter, the committee, which reports to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, will have its charter extended only long enough to conduct one final meeting next month.
According to Ray, SACGHS members were notified this week that Secretary Sebelius and NIH Director Francis Collins had determined that “the major topics related to genetic and genomic technologies had been successfully addressed by the committee through its comprehensive reports and recommendations over the years” and, for that reason, the decision was made “to sunset the committee’s charter.”
In what appears to be the first publicly identified case of its kind, a Connecticut woman has accused her employer of violating the recently enacted federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). According to a story in the Boston Herald (discovered thanks to a tip from Matt Mealiffe), 39-year-old Pamela Fink received an elective double mastectomy last year after testing positive for mutations in her BRCA2 gene associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Fink alleges that, despite giving her “glowing evaluations for years,” her employer, MXenergy, “targeted, demoted and eventually dismissed her when she told them of the genetic test results.”
GINA, which was passed by Congress in 2008 and took effect last year, represents the most comprehensive effort to date to regulate the use of genetic information by employers (Title II) and health care insurers (Title I). Under Section 201(a)(i) of GINA, employers with more than 15 employees may not “discriminate against any employee with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment…because of genetic information.”
Recent advances in genetic science are remarkable. In 2003 the first full human genome was sequenced after 13 years of work at a cost of over $3 billion. Today, the cost to sequence any individual’s entire genome is approaching $1,000. Genetic tests for specific genes linked to cancer and other diseases exist today and many more are being developed. We hear of a new era of “personalized medicine” in which drugs and therapies will be prescribed based on the individual patient’s specific genes.
All of this may seem to have little direct relevance to companies outside of biotechnology. However, the development of genetic knowledge and technology already has spawned new laws, regulations and patent uncertainties that impact almost all businesses in some way.
Privacy and Nondiscrimination. The federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) represents the most comprehensive effort to date to regulate the use of genetic information. GINA initially only prohibited health insurers and group health plans from using genetic information to deny coverage or set payment rates. Another section, which just became effective in November 2009, affects all private and public employers with more than 15 employees.
From October 5 to December 8, 2009, the Genomics Law Report featured a series of thirty-six guest commentaries by industry, academic and thought leaders in the fields of genomics and personalized medicine. Entitled What ELSI is New?, the series, which we have organized into an e-book (pdf), asked each contributor to briefly respond to the following question: “What do you believe is the most important ethical, legal or social issue (ELSI) that must be addressed by the fields of genomics and/or personalized medicine?”
For better or worse, that’s where the instructions ended. The invited contributors identified the ELSI of their choice and discussed (or not) their rationale for so selecting as they saw fit. In addition to refraining from substantive editing, we intentionally avoided coordinating commentaries. Although we encouraged independent submissions from a variety of contributors and deprived them of any advance knowledge of what others in the series would say, one of our hopes was that consensus would begin to form around certain key ethical, legal and social issues.
To some degree this occurred. In collecting the series for the convenience of readers who would like to have all of the contributions in one place (pdf), we have ultimately settled on six broad topic headings for the commentaries
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