Q&A: Understanding the new Genetic Non-Discrimination Act and the impact it has on you and your employees

Allison Hazell, Clinical Director, Genetics, answers our questions.

We interviewed Allison Hazell, Clinical Director, Genetics at Medcan to share with employers what they should know about the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act that became law on May 4, 2017.

1. The federal Genetic Non-Discrimination Act is now law. What’s changed?

The big change is that genetic test results can no longer be used or considered in any way when you enter into a contract, such as insurance. For example, insurance providers can’t ask you to undergo a genetic test when you buy insurance – or request the results of previous or future genetic tests.

And for federally regulated employers, such as banks or transportation companies, genetic test results can’t be used in decisions about hiring, firing, job assignments, or promotions – and these employers can’t request or require genetic test results of any employee.

The new law also changes the Canadian Human Rights Act to ban discrimination based on genetic characteristics. Ontario has proposed a similar change to its Human Rights Code.

2. So with the new law, employees can take the test without worrying about any impact on their insurability?

Exactly. While Canadian insurance companies didn’t request genetic tests upfront as a condition for buying insurance, many applications required people to disclose the results of any previous genetic testing and used that information for underwriting purposes.

For example, if an employee wanted to apply for critical illness insurance under their group health plan, the application may have asked for the results of any previous genetic tests before determining coverage. As of May 4, 2017, insurance companies can’t ask for or use this information, including information from pharmacogenomic testing.

3. Is pharmacogenomics considered genetic testing?

It is, and it’s covered under the new law, but it’s a very specific type of test. When people think of genetic testing, they usually think of tests that assess a person’s risk of developing certain genetic disorders and health conditions. Pharmacogenomics is used solely to help doctors understand how a specific patient will respond to a given medication, based on that person’s DNA.

It’s done in a lab with a simple cheek swab, and more employers are using it – especially in disability leave situations. It can avoid drug treatment trial and error and help employees identify the most effective medication for them much faster.

4. Does the new law make it easier for employers to include pharmacogenomics as part of their group health plan?

I think it helps. I doubt the results of a pharmacogenomic test would impact insurability, even before the new law. However, I have met with people who were reluctant to proceed with any genetic testing for fear of having the information impact their insruability. So I think the new law provides important reassurance to employees that they can participate in pharmacogenomic testing without a worry that results could be used against them. In that way, I think it removes a potential hurdle to more widespread adoption of pharmacogenomics as part of employee group health plans.

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