Digging Deeper into the EEOC’s Final GINA Regulations

As we wrote yesterday, last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued definitive rules and regulations (pdf) with respect to Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). In our previous post we offered a brief overview of the new regulations, as well as some preliminary suggestions for employers just now coming to grips with GINA.

We also promised to take a closer look in today’s post at several substantive features of the EEOC’s new regulations.

Defining the Terms. The EEOC, the government agency generally responsible for enforcing federal employment nondiscrimination laws, was the logical choice to promulgate regulations under GINA’s Title II, which governs the use of genetic information by employers and similar entities. But not all of GINA’s statutory provisions were within the EEOC’s area of expertise.

For that reason, the EEOC solicited help from outside agencies, including the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), to aid in developing both the proposed and final regulations. Despite a few stumbles with the science (notably its description of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes), the EEOC’s final regulations—as well as its explanatory preamble—are laudably clear and informative. The preamble and the regulations themselves include numerous illustrative examples—something that was largely lacking in the draft regulations—and they should be particularly helpful to the predominantly non-scientific audience tasked with implementing GINA.

For example, public commenters requested additional clarification with respect to what does and does not constitute a “genetic test.” The EEOC responded in spades. According to the EEOC, genetic tests include (i) BRCA testing and other diagnostic cancer testing, as well as prognostic testing for Huntington’s Disease, (ii) carrier screenings of adults to determine the risk of conditions such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, (iii) reproductive genetic testing and screening of all kinds, including amniocentesis, newborn screening and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, (iv) pharmacogenetics testing and (v) DNA testing for ancestry or familial/paternity relationships. In short, just about every technology on the personal genomics landscape appears to fall within the definition of genetic test.

Another important definition, clarified in the final regulations, is that of a “manifest” disease. The EEOC clarifies at several points in the preamble its position that genetic information alone is not equivalent to a disease or disorder: “other signs or symptoms must be present.” The EEOC uses the example of Huntington’s Disease which, despite its high degree of penetrance, is not considered to be a present disease even following a positive genetic test until actual symptoms arise.

This distinction is crucial because, under § 1635.12 of the final regulations, employers are not barred from using, acquiring or disclosing medical information about a “manifested disease, disorder, or pathological condition,” even when such disease or disorder has a genetic component. (However, employers may be barred from discriminating on the basis of such information by other federal law, including the ADA.)

The final regulations also provide greater clarity with respect to the definition of “family member,” which includes all dependents (including spouses, adopted children and other people who are not genetically related) and all other persons “related from the first to the fourth degree of an individual.” Other key terms, including “genetic information,” “genetic services,” and “family medical history” also receive helpful background discussion.

Deliberate vs. Inadvertent Acquisition. It is illegal under GINA for employers to “request, require, or purchase” genetic information. In considering what constitutes a “request” for purposes of GINA, the proposed rule was structured to prohibit the “deliberate acquisition” of genetic information. Some commenters, including the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized this proposed rule for suggesting that employers must have the “specific intent” to acquire genetic information to run afoul of the law. (Others suggested that requiring a “purposeful act” was, in fact, what Congress intended.)

In the final regulations, the EEOC sided with the ACLU in determining that “request” extends beyond a specific or deliberate intent to encompass a variety of actions that are “likely to result” in the acquisition of genetic information.

Despite this broad prohibition on the request of genetic information, GINA provides several exceptions, including with respect to “inadvertent requests” and “commercially and publicly available information.” The “inadvertent” request or disclosure scenario was originally inserted by Congress to address the so-called “water cooler problem,” in which employers inadvertently received genetic information, including family medical history, from employees in the course of routine conversations or interactions. Likewise, the “publicly available information” exception was intended to protect employers who acquired genetic information about their employees by, for instance, watching the evening news.

To aid in understanding the specific contours of these exceptions, the EEOC has provided significant clarifying guidance and examples. For instance, while an employer does not violate GINA by participating in “water cooler conversations”—whether those conversations happen around a conventional water cooler or in more modern settings, including on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media platforms—that information is not an invitation to bypass GINA. The employer and its agents must “not then ask follow-up questions that are probing in nature.”

Similarly, the category of “commercially and publicly available materials” will generally not include materials made available to the public, or to some portion of the public, on a restricted basis (i.e., when more than simple registration is required for access). For example, research databases made available only to the scientific community or Facebook profile information shared only with “friends” (as opposed to information visible in a public database or on a public website) would not satisfy this exception.

Even genetic information that is available to the public on an unrestricted basis—as is true of genetic information provided by individuals, including one of us, who participate in public genomics projects—is not necessarily fair game for employers under GINA. If employers access such sources “with the intent of obtaining genetic information,” particularly if it comes from a source “that focuses on issues such as genetic testing of individuals” they will not be able to take advantage of GINA’s limited exception for publicly available materials.

As the EEOC explains, GINA’s limited exceptions are “intended to protect from liability a covered entity that inadvertently obtains genetic information and not a covered entity that is actively searching for genetic information.”

When it comes to applying GINA’s various exceptions, employers should remember that Title II of GINA serves three related but ultimately separate functions: (i) a general prohibition on the request for or acquisition of genetic information, (ii) an ever-more-complete prohibition on the discriminatory use of genetic information in employment-related decisions and (iii) strict confidentiality requirements pertaining to any sharing or disclosure of genetic information, however obtained, by employers. Thus, even genetic information that is requested or acquired lawfully under one of GINA’s exceptions is still subject to the remaining two prongs of GINA Title II, and it may not be used to discriminate in employment-related decisions or disclosed in violation of GINA’s confidentiality provisions.

No New Exemptions. In addition to clarifying the scope of existing exemptions, the EEOC specifically declined to introduce new exceptions under GINA relating to the use of genetic information in evaluating the ability of an employee (or prospective employee) to safely and effectively perform a particular job. Exemptions proposed by commenters would have permitted a covered entity to request genetic information (i) as part of “a medical examination conducted to assess an individual’s ability to perform a job” or (ii) “to determine whether an individual has a particular manifested disease, disorder, or pathological condition and where information about [that condition], as opposed to its signs and symptoms, is necessary to evaluate an individual’s ability to perform a particular job.”

The EEOC declined to create such an exemption in each case, citing both a lack of authority under GINA and its belief that “there does not appear to be a case in which the diagnosis, as opposed to the signs and symptoms, is necessary to evaluate an individual’s ability to perform a particular job.”

Shortly after the EEOC released its draft regulations we addressed this particular issue, among others, with a pair of GINA-related posts (see here and here). We considered whether there might be situations in which an employer could have a legitimate interest in testing an employee for a genetically-mediated condition, particularly where the employee’s activities might increase the risk or the severity of such condition becoming manifest during the course of employment.

The primary example we considered was that of professional basketball player Eddy Curry, who was traded by the Chicago Bulls after refusing to undergo a genetic test for Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM).

As we wrote then:

Curry’s case is a very good example of a more general scenario that I suspect might pose a real problem once GINA takes effect. How will employers and employees handle situations in which an employer suspects that an employee is either suffering from, or at risk of, developing a medical condition with an identifiable genetic component? (In Curry’s case, it was the irregular heartbeat that created suspicion of HCM.) It would seem that, in most such cases, the employer will be forced to take action without a confirmatory genetic test.

The final regulations decline to create an exemption for this scenario and, indeed, it appears that if this case arose today, the Chicago Bulls might be prohibited from even requesting an HCM test. Although Curry did exhibit some physical symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat, the HCM test would arguably have been necessary to evaluate his ability to perform this particular job (that of a professional basketball player), particularly because the irregular heartbeat and other physical symptoms, on their own, may not have been enough for a conclusive diagnosis.

While the EEOC failed to find sufficient reason to create such an exemption, this situation is likely to appear in other contexts in coming years. While genetic information is primarily used to diagnose or guide treatment for manifest diseases or conditions, it is likely to play an increasing role in determining behavioral and lifestyle decisions—potentially including choice of employment—for conditions not yet manifest. Under GINA, however, except where an employer is required to do so by law, it may not “limit, segregate, or classify an individual…because of genetic information with respect to that individual.” There is no exception for imposing a limitation designed solely to protect the well-being of the employee.

As genetic information becomes more prevalent and more useful, we expect to see a growing tension between an employer’s legitimate interest in ensuring the welfare of its employees (for both economic reasons and out of a legitimate desire to protect its employees from harm) and GINA’s broad prohibition on requesting genetic information.

Employee Wellness Programs. One area where employers are already actively attempting to use genetic information—typically in the form of family medical history—to safeguard the health of their employees (and, in turn, decrease employers’ own healthcare costs) is employee wellness programs.

Increasing numbers of employers have implemented wellness programs, which frequently operate by assessing employees’ personal risk factors (including medical, environmental and behavioral) and encouraging the adoption of healthier lifestyles and practices. Many wellness programs include financial incentives (often in the form of premium discounts) for participation and/or completion.

Following GINA’s passage, and particularly the EEOC’s proposed regulations, many employers were concerned that such wellness programs might violate GINA. The proposed regulations permitted wellness programs only if they were offered on a “voluntary” basis (and if certain other conditions were met). Many commenters worried financial incentives or inducements would be deemed incompatible with the requirement of voluntariness.

In its final regulations, the EEOC has addressed this concern by clarifying the circumstances under which an employer may offer wellness programs that include a request for genetic information (including family history). In order for the wellness program to comply with GINA:

  • the employee must provide a prior, knowing, voluntary and written authorization to participate in the program (electronic or online authorizations are allowed);
  • individually identifiable genetic information may only be provided to the licensed health care professionals or board certified genetic counselors involved with the program;
  • any genetic information received from the wellness provider must be in aggregate terms that do not disclose the identity of specific individuals; and
  • employee incentives or benefits related to the program must not be conditioned upon the provision of genetic information.

Most notably, the EEOC determined that financial inducements for wellness programs are allowed, but only where the employer makes it crystal clear that neither participation in the wellness program nor the receipt of any benefit resulting from participation is conditioned upon the provision of genetic information.

What’s Next. Although GINA is now two and a half years old, like all new laws it remains subject to a considerable degree of uncertainty. Thus far, we are aware of only one publicly discussed EEOC claim filed under GINA (although EEOC’s legal counsel estimates “around 200 charges have been filed with EEOC under GINA so far“) and no court decisions interpreting the law. The EEOC’s final regulations are well-written and helpful but, ultimately, it will take years before we understand how GINA operates in practice.