U.S. settles first lawsuit under new health privacy law

The U.S. has settled its first lawsuit under the a new health care privacy law, and appears poised to aggressively target other employers who ask their workers about family illnesses.

The case involved a fabric distributor in Oklahoma that apparently required its workers to undergo physical exams in which they were asked whether cancer, heart disease or mental disorders ran in their families. The company quickly settled the case and agreed to pay $50,000 in damages to a job applicant who had been asked to provide such a family history.

This was the first lawsuit brought under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA. The law – which prohibits employers from asking about genetic testing results or family medical histories – was intended to encourage people to undergo genetic testing without having to worry about negative repercussions in the workplace.

Congress passed the law because it was afraid employers would discriminate against workers who have a greater risk of serious illness and who could make employer-provided health insurance more expensive.

GINA also bars companies from relying on genetic information when deciding whether to hire, fire or promote workers. Employers who violate GINA can be ordered to reinstate, hire or promote an affected worker, and they can also be ordered to pay an employee’s back wages and attorney fees, as well as additional damages.

After the settlement in the Oklahoma case, the U.S. followed up by suing a rehabilitation facility in upstate New York that had allegedly asked about family medical histories during physical exams. That case is still pending.

GINA covers asking about any disease or disorder that’s been diagnosed or could reasonably be diagnosed, and it covers family history as far out as great-great grandparents and first cousins once removed.

Employers who require physicals should include specific instructions to doctors not to ask about family history or genetic information. Also, this information should not be requested as part of a company wellness program.