GINA Violated? Employee Claims Genetic Test Result Got Her Fired

Last Updated Apr 30, 2010 7:24 PM EDT

The BRCA2 gene for breast cancer has made news again. First, it was over the Myriad Genetics patent case. Now, according to a story first reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday, a 39-year-old woman in Connecticut is suing her employer, MXenergy, for eliminating her job after she decided to have a double mastectomy when she learned that she carried the BRCA2 gene associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

If Pamela Fink wins this case, it will be the first direct employer violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which was put into place by the Bush administration in 2008 in order to protect US citizens against discrimination based on genetic information when it comes to health insurance and employment.

According to AP reporter Stephanie Reitz:

Pamela Fink, 39, of Fairfield said in discrimination complaints that her bosses at natural gas and electric supplier MXenergy gave her glowing evaluations for years, but targeted, demoted and eventually dismissed her when she told them of the genetic test results.
[...]
She said Tuesday that genetic tests that she and her two sisters had done in 2004 at Yale Cancer Center showed all three carried the specific gene predisposing them to breast cancer. Both sisters developed breast cancer, but survived with treatment. After several biopsies and frightening false alarms, Fink opted for a preventative double mastectomy last year.Feeling comfortable in what she described as a supportive work environment, she told her bosses at MXenergy about her genetic tests and the surgery, she said.

[...]

She said in her complaint that MXenergy hired a consultant for her work while she was recovering from her first surgery, but that person became her boss when she returned and the company quickly took away her office and most her duties.

She said her job was eliminated -- the only one in her department -- and she was escorted out in March, about six weeks after she returned from her second surgery.

This case may be key in determining the level of seriousness with which companies manage the increasing access to genetic information about their employees. It's exactly the violations that Fink is describing that incite public fears about privacy as personal genetic information is collected into databases by employers, healthcare providers, and insurance companies.

Clearly, these fears and potential threats are bad for business since so much of the burgeoning genomics industry is being built on creating systems and products that collect and disseminate genetic information to improve heathcare communication and the way drugs are used. This very fact should inspire companies to be more responsible, not less, with the delicate information they hold about their employees. According to genetics lawyer Daniel Vorhaus, Section 201(a)(i) of GINA, outlines that 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."

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