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BUSH calls for ban on genetic discrimination

Updated:

CRAWFORD, Texas _ Resisting a Democratic patients' bill of rights, President Bush put himself on the patients' side of another health issue, asking Congress to ban discrimination based on information from genetic testing.

But Bush parts company from Democrats on both bills by opposing provisions that would allow patients who are harmed to sue insurance companies for large damages.

The patients' rights issue, prompted by the explosion of cost-conscious managed care, is in its fifth year of intense debate in Congress. The genetic discrimination issue is newer, but it gained momentum earlier this year when scientists completed the mapping of the human genome.

``By better understanding the genetic codes in each human being, scientists may one day be able to cure and prevent many diseases,'' Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. ``As with any other power, this knowledge of the codes of life has the potential to be abused.''

The president's comments were recorded at his ranch, where he is spending a three-day weekend with first lady Laura Bush.

New genetic research may make it possible to identify an individual's lifetime risk of cancer, heart attack and other diseases, and experts worry that this information could be used to discriminate in hiring, promotions or insurance.

Employers and insurers could save millions of dollars if they could use predictive genetics to identify in advance, and then reject, applicants who are predisposed to develop chronic disease. And fear of discrimination could discourage people from seeking useful information about their genetic makeup.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a principal sponsor of genetic discrimination legislation in the House, responded that Bush and many Republicans are latecomers to the genetic discrimination issue.

``The Republican leadership in the House has failed to act on this issue,'' she said Saturday in a statement. She added that her bill now has support of more than 250 House members, including nearly 50 Republicans.

Identical legislation is moving through the Senate pushed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Slaughter said it is expected to be passed this year.

``I hope the president will support this strong, enforceable nondiscrimination bill,'' Slaughter said. The bill gives people the right to sue in cases involving both health insurance and employment.

Bush said that his administration is working on its own version of the legislation now.

``I look forward to working with members of Congress to pass a law that is fair, reasonable and consistent with existing discrimination statutes,'' the president said.

In the case of both genetic discrimination and the patients' bill of rights, there's considerable agreement on the need for protections but deep difference on how to enforce them.

On patients' rights, which gives patients new rights in dealing with their insurance companies, Bush repeated his contention that the Democratic bill before the Senate would needlessly encourage lawsuits.

``The system should not favor HMOs and it should not favor trial lawyers,'' he said. ``It should favor patients with quick action to make sure they get the treatment they need.''

Responding for Democrats, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that as it now stands health maintenance organizations and foreign diplomats are the only two groups with total immunity from lawsuits.

``It is past time that we stood up for ... millions of other Americans who have been harmed when an HMO refuses to live up to their word,'' Harkin said.

Republicans are particularly concerned that employers who provide their workers health insurance will wind up facing lawsuits, and on Friday, they proposed giving them ironclad protection from lawsuits. Democrats said they were willing to limit, if not eliminate, liability.

Debate resumes on patients' rights this week in the Senate.
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