U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th, has defended her controversial bill that would allow employers to acquire genetic information about their employees and their families in order to reduce workers’ health insurance premiums.

Critics say employees who decline genetic testing or choose not to participate in their employers’ wellness programs could face penalties under the legislation.

Two weeks ago, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce voted, 22-17, to approve HR 1313, also known as the Preserving Employee Wellness Program Act. Foxx, the committee’s chairwoman, introduced the bill in the U.S. House and voted for it.

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-12th, a committee member, voted against it. Adams couldn’t be reached Wednesday to comment on the bill.

House leaders haven’t scheduled a floor vote for the bill, a committee spokeswoman said. The legislation has been overshadowed by the debate among Republican legislators in the U.S. House and Senate about the American Health Care Act that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Foxx spoke about the wellness bill Friday at the Lincoln/Reagan Day Dinner in Winston-Salem, which was sponsored by the Forsyth County Republican Party. About 200 local Republicans attended the event in the Downtown Marriott Hotel.

Foxx said that the bill is intended to correct contradictory legislation approved by Congress during the Obama administration. Recent news accounts of the bill has misinterpreted it, she said.

“We are setting the record straight,” Foxx said. “We do not ask for people’s genetic information.

“Wellness programs are purely voluntary,” she said. “But if they (employees) do participate, there is a chance to have their premiums reduced. What the media is saying is if you don’t participate, you get fined. That is not true — simply not true.”

The bill would exempt workplace wellness programs from limitations under federal law on medical examinations and inquiries of employees, the prohibition on collection information in connection with issuing health insurance and limitations of federal law on collection of the genetic information of employees or family members of employees, according to the U.S. House website.

This exemption would apply to workplace wellness programs that comply with limits on rewards for employees participating in the program.

Foxx couldn’t be reached Tuesday for further comment on the bill. Sheridan Watson, a Foxx spokeswoman, pointed to three statements, which have been released by Foxx’s committee about the bill.

In one of those statements, the committee said that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken steps to undermine the use of employee wellness programs by pursuing costly litigation against employers and adopting restrictive new rules.

“The commission’s partisan actions are contrary to the bipartisan will of the Congress, defied the responsible policies of three federal agencies, and created significant regulatory confusion and legal uncertainty for employers,” the committee statement said.

Kimberly Smith-Brown, an EEOC spokeswoman, said her agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Mark Hall, a professor of law and public health at Wake Forest University, said the bill’s sponsors may not have been aware when they introduced the legislation that some parts of it conflict with existing protections for employees such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

“My guess is that the relevant committees will give these issues more attention now that they have been brought to light,” Hall said. “And I would not be surprised if the bill fails to advance through Congress in its current form.”

Critics of the bill said the legislation would eliminate prohibitions on employers to inquire about employees’ private genetic information and would give businesses the authority to impose penalties on employees who choose to keep that information private. However, the eight-page bill doesn’t contain that specific language.

Nevertheless, nearly 70 organizations, representing consumer, health and medical advocacy groups, sent a letter to Foxx before the committee vote, harshly condemning the bill. Those groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association and the March of Dimes.

“HR 1313 would allow penalties up to a maximum averaging many thousands of dollars per year if employees decline to disclose information from genetic tests that they, their spouses, their children or their other family members have had, or if they do not reveal their families’ medical histories,” according to the letter.

“Allowing penalties of this magnitude would clearly allow employers to coerce employees into revealing their private genetic information,” the letter says.

Some employers support the bill, saying that it would clarify their authority under existing federal laws to administer employee wellness programs. The American Benefits Council, which advocates in Washington, D.C., for employer-sponsored benefit programs, has issued a statement supporting the bill.

The council said that the bill would streamline complicated federal regulations governing employer-sponsored benefit programs.

“We believe in the promise of wellness programs to improve the health and productivity of employees,” the council said. “We are equally committed to protecting the privacy of employees’ personal health and genetic information.”

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