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Senate KOs Broad Gene Bias Measure

June 30, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Days after scientists announced the decoding of the human genome, the Senate rejected Democratic legislation Thursday that would let people sue for discrimination if genetic information is misused in the workplace or by insurance companies.

Instead, senators opted for a more narrow Republican version focused only on limiting the way insurers and group health plans can use such information. They said the broader bill needed more study and could result in a raft of lawsuits.

``This issue deserves and requires a thorough discussion in its own forum,″ said Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., who promised comprehensive hearings in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee he heads.

The debate came on amendments to the annual appropriations bill that funds the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. President Clinton has threatened to veto the $352 billion spending bill _ expected to pass Friday _ over spending levels and for other reasons.

The Senate did approve two competing ``lockbox″ provisions aimed at preventing budget surpluses in the Medicare program from being used for spending or tax cuts, which is similar to legislation already passed by the House. Clinton praised the Democratic version.

``Before we make any other major budget decisions this year, we should agree that Medicare funds should not be used to finance tax cuts or other spending,″ he said in a statement Thursday night.

The genetics votes followed this week’s landmark announcement that public and private researchers had essentially deciphered the entire human genetic code, or genome. The breakthrough opens a new universe of possibilities in preventative medicine but also raises fears that private health information could be used to discriminate against people prone to certain diseases.

``We cannot take one step forward in science and two steps backward in civil rights,″ said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. ``Discrimination based on genetic factors is just as unacceptable as that based on race, national origin, religion, sex or disability.″

The Senate voted 54-44 along party lines to defeat Daschle’s proposal, which would prohibit employers from using genetic information in hiring and workplace promotion or salaries. It also would prevent insurance companies from basing coverage or premiums on genetic information, from requiring such tests as to get coverage and permit an individual to take discrimination claims to court.

Instead, the Senate opted by a 58-40 vote for Jeffords’ alternative setting up similar restrictions on use of genetic information by insurance companies and group health plans but doing nothing on workplace discrimination or a right to sue. Republicans said the Democratic approach was hasty and would result in numerous court claims.

``This isn’t the right way to do it,″ said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. ``This becomes a turnstile for trial attorneys.″

Clinton announced before the overall spending bill even reached the Senate floor that he would veto it, contending it would not reduce class sizes by providing money he wants to hire 100,000 new teachers and would not guarantee $1.3 billion in loans and grants to repair crumbling schools.

In addition, the Senate last week added another provision opposed by the administration that would block Labor Department rules giving workers new protections against repetitive motion injuries.

____

The bill is H.R. 4577.

On the Net: Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

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