H.R. 7083: Improving Access to Genetic Counseling

Posted By: David L. Nelson, 2018 President

Genetic counseling is an integral part of advancing human genetics in medical care and vital to our collective research agenda. Recognizing this, ASHG took action last week in strong support of H.R. 7083, the Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act of 2018, which would expand access to genetic counseling services for Medicare beneficiaries. We took this action under the leadership of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), and are proud to add our largest voice in the human genetics community to urge this policy change. NSGC is our valued partner on this legislation and other new programming to serve genetic counselors in research.

Specifically, I wrote to bill sponsors Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and David Loebsack (D-IA) expressing the Society’s gratitude for introducing this legislation and for seeking to resolve a problem that has existed for many years (see image). Currently, while genetic counseling is covered under Medicare, genetic counselors themselves are not currently recognized as providers by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that runs the program. This means that genetic counselors are unable to bill directly for any services rendered to Medicare beneficiaries.

The letter written by David Nelson, PhD, ASHG President, to U.S. Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and David Loebsack (D-IA).
The letter written by David Nelson, PhD, ASHG President, to U.S. Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and David Loebsack (D-IA).

H.R. 7083 is designed to resolve this coverage gap. If it were to become law, this bill would recognize licensed genetic counselors as Medicare healthcare providers, and further establish a path for Medicare reimbursement for other genetic counselors.  In this way, it will reduce the access issues to genetic counseling services currently faced by Medicare beneficiaries.

For this bill to become law, it will need to be passed by Congress in the next few days.  Given the many steps in the legislative process, this is highly unlikely.  However, we hope that the legislation is re-introduced when the Congress reconvenes next year and that Congress advances it swiftly through the legislative process.

To receive updates regarding progress of this bill and on other issues, I urge you to sign up as an ASHG Advocate if you have not already done so.

David L. Nelson, PhD, is the 2018 President of ASHG. He is a Cullen Foundation Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine, Associate Director of the BCM Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, and Director of the BCM Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program.

Legislation Funding NIH Also Protects Genetic Privacy of Vulnerable Families

Posted By: Nikki Meadows, PhD, 2017-18 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow 

Buried within the legislation establishing funding for the National Institutes of Health for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 (H.R. 6157) is a little-reported provision to protect the genetic privacy of immigrant family members. Congress often uses the annual appropriations bills to direct federal agencies on how to proceed on a particular activity or to commission a report about a particular topic. This provision, proposed by Representatives Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-09) and Katherine Clark (D, MA-05), is one such directive.

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The U.S. Congress gave some attention to genetic privacy through the annual budget. (courtesy the Architect of the Capitol)

In April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began enforcing an existing family separation policy with the stated goal of stemming what DHS and other related agencies perceived to be a rise in illegal immigration at the U.S.—Mexico border. As was widely reported in the media, children were separated from their parents or legal guardians at the border and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), while the parents and legal guardians were held in criminal detention. In response, many members of Congress and the general public demanded reunification of these families, and in June a federal judge ordered that the more than 2,500 children in ORR custody be reunited with their families.

Family Reunification Involved Genetic Testing 

To help reunite young children with their families by the July 5 deadline, HHS began using DNA testing to verify parentage. However, HHS provided few details regarding the testing, such as who was being tested, which labs were involved in performing the tests, and what testing was being performed. Importantly, there was also a lack of clarity regarding whether individuals were consenting to such testing, how HHS was protecting individuals’ genetic privacy, and how the test results could be used.

The provision added by Reps. Kaptur and Clark was designed to address some of these concerns. It directs ORR to “ensure the protection of privacy and genetic material, data, or information of children, parents, and of all individuals being tested and their relatives.” It also requires consent prior to collection and sample destruction once testing has concluded.

ASHG Applauds Kaptur and Clark for their Attention to Genetic Privacy 

ASHG was very supportive of this provision, and President David L. Nelson sent letters to Reps. Kaptur and Clark thanking them for their “leadership in advancing measures to ensure individuals’ genetic privacy as immigrant families seek to be reunified.” He wrote that “…an individual’s genome includes information on his or her risk for disease, their ancestry, and their relatedness to others, [so] it is important that we protect the genetic privacy of people tested.” He went on to further say that “genetic analysis should be restricted to the explicit purpose for which a person is being tested.”

ASHG’s support for this provision is the latest way in which the Society is championing measures to protect individuals’ genetic privacy. ASHG is a strong supporter of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which among its provisions protects genetic privacy related to employment and health insurance, as well as a similar law in Canada. It also supports provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act strengthening participant privacy in research. The Kaptur/Clark amendment extends some privacy protections to those seeking reunification and ensures that federal agencies cannot use their genetic information for any purpose beyond reunification.

Nikki Meadows, PhD, is the 2017-18 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. For more information on ASHG’s policy and advocacy programs, please visit the Policy & Advocacy webpage. 

U.S. Congress Approves $2 Billion Increase for NIH Funding

Posted by: Nikki Meadows, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Last month, the U.S. Congress approved legislation establishing a $2 billion (or 5.1%) funding increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. NIH’s total funding for FY 2019 is $39.1 billion. This includes increased funding for several priority research initiatives, such as the Cancer Moonshot and the All of Us research Initiative.

Increase Will Support New Priorities in Genetics and Genomics

The legislation (H.R. 6157) was signed into law by President Trump on September 28, after passing both the Senate (93-7) and the House (361-61). The $2 billion boost is the fourth consecutive increase in the NIH budget in recent years, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for biomedical research in Congress. Significantly, it is the first time in over 20 years that Congress has finalized the NIH budget on time.

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The $2 billion increase is consistent with the increase recommended and advocated for by ASHG and other FASEB organizations. (Credit: NIH Research Funding Trends, FASEB)

In addition to Congress being able to allocate funding for specific research initiatives, the annual appropriations bill also gives Congress an opportunity to issue directives to federal agencies, such as establishing how an agency should proceed on a particular activity or commissioning a report about a particular topic. One such directive you may be familiar with is the so-called “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” which forbids the use of federal research dollars on any research that harms human embryos. In the FY 2019 appropriations, there are three directives related to genetics and genomics:

  • Representatives Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) advanced an amendment protecting the genetic privacy of individuals seeking family reunification. The amendment directs the Office of Refugee Resettlement to ensure the protection and privacy of genetic material, data, or information of children, parents, and all of the individuals being tested and their relatives.
  • A Government Accountability Office report was commissioned to analyze the medical genetics workforce nationwide. The report is asked to determine whether there are a sufficient number of qualified professionals to serve this growing health need and whether there are any geographic areas that lack access to genetic counseling professionals.
  • An amendment from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) requires the HHS Secretary to submit a report on the circumstances in which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services may be providing payments to, or otherwise funding, entities that process genome or exome data in the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation.

Funding Bill’s Timely Passage Will Help with Long-Term Planning

The fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30 of the following year, and each year, Congress is required to establish funding for upcoming fiscal year. For the past 21 years, Congress has missed the deadline, and in order to avoid a government shutdown, had to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that agreed to continue to fund the government until a new spending bill was completed. Indeed, such a scenario caused brief shutdowns last winter.

This year, the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes NIH, was funded through all of FY 2019, so there is no possibility of a shutdown for NIH. The budget’s timely passage means that institutes and centers can plan for the year ahead knowing what funds are available. However, other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, are currently funded by a CR until December 7, 2018, and funding for these agencies in FY 2019 remains uncertain.

Happy 10th Birthday, GINA!

Posted By: Derek Scholes, ASHG Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy

Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush signed into U.S. law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, better known as GINA. The enactment of GINA in 2008 was the culmination of a determined 13-year campaign by congressional champions and advocacy groups, including ASHG, to establish nationwide legal protections against genetic discrimination in the workplace or through one’s health insurance. Today, in recognition of the anniversary and the enduring importance of the law, ASHG is launching a short video to help spread the word about the law.

 

One reason why ASHG has always been a strong supporter of GINA is because it helps reassure the public that they can volunteer for genetics research, or take a genetic test at the doctor’s, without worrying that this will affect their job, their health insurance, or their privacy. It was for this reason that leaders of the Human Genome Project were calling for the establishment of protections against genetic discrimination in the mid-1990s. At the time of its passage, Jo Boughman, PhD, ASHG’s then-Executive Vice President, wrote, “Americans can feel more confident that their personal genetic information cannot be used against them, and encouraged to participate in scientific research studies that require the collection and storage of genetic data.”

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Former President George W. Bush signs the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act on May 21, 2008, in the Oval Office.

But GINA is only effective in reassuring the public to the extent that people know about the law. Since its passage in 2008, however, studies have repeatedly shown that most individuals are not aware of GINA or its protections. A 2011 study found that only 16% of Americans knew of any law protecting their genetic privacy. Similarly, a 2015 survey of U.S. residents found that 79% were unfamiliar with GINA. This lack of awareness is found within health care too, with research finding most physicians and nurse practitioners do not know about the law. Together, these studies suggest an ongoing need to raise awareness about GINA if it is to be effective as originally envisioned.

ASHG is playing its part. As well as watching the video, please check out ASHG’s statement about the 10th anniversary; today’s Research!America blog post by ASHG President David Nelson; and a blog post from former ASHG/NHGRI Genetics and & Public Policy Fellow Daryl Pritchard, reflecting on his time working in Congress on GINA.

GINA is designed to prohibit genetic discrimination within health insurance. Since GINA’s passage, there has been ongoing discussion in the genetics community regarding whether there should be similar legal protections in the U.S. against genetic discrimination for ‘the other insurances’ – life, disability and long-term care, protections that go beyond the current patchwork of state laws. Two issues commonly discussed are (a) whether there is a strong, evidence-based case for establishing such protections and, if so, (b) how one would craft such a federal law, or series of state laws, to establish such protections. Let us know your thoughts below, or write to us at policy@ashg.org.

For more information on ASHG programs in policy and advocacy, visit the Policy & Advocacy page.

GINA Turns 10: A Look Back at its Passage

Posted By: Jillian Galloway, Science Policy Analyst, ASHG

As the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) turns ten, ASHG caught up with Daryl Pritchard, former ASHG/NHGRI Genetics and Public Policy Fellow, to discuss his time in Rep. Louise Slaughter’s office working on the passage of GINA and her legacy as the woman who championed genetic information protections in Congress.

ASHG: Trained as a geneticist, how were you able to work in Rep. Slaughter’s office?

Daryl: The opportunity came through the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy fellowship. The fellowship really opened doors for me. It was how I got to see all of the passion Rep. Slaughter had for genetics and science.

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Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Daryl Pritchard, 2003 (courtesy Dr. Pritchard)

ASHG: What was your role in Rep. Slaughter’s office?

Daryl: I was the first fellow and needed to find an assignment on Capitol Hill, and was drawn to Slaughter’s office because of the GINA legislation. GINA was a personal priority for me and something Congresswoman Slaughter was deeply passionate about. I took on the role of Health Legislative Assistant that year. As a geneticist, I could contribute to public understanding of the bill, translating the law’s benefits into layman’s terms. Beyond GINA, I would handle any scientific or health policy issue. GINA was the primary reason I was there, but other important health issues were also on the docket.

ASHG: What was your involvement with GINA while working in Rep. Slaughter’s office?

Daryl: It was pretty intense. The bill had first been introduced in 1995 and I was there in 2003. She needed to gain her colleagues’ support for the legislation and educate other members of staff and the public about its importance. So I drafted talking points for public communications and ‘Dear Colleague’ letters to drum up support from her fellow members of Congress. I would represent Louise at various visits and would promote her vision of protections for the American public against genetic discrimination.

ASHG: Why do you think the passage of GINA was so important to her? 

Daryl: She often talked about being the only microbiologist in Congress and being a scientist early in her career. She recognized the importance of scientific research for health and realized that without adequate protections for patients and research subjects, there would be a lingering fear or reluctance on the part of the public to get testing. This, in turn, would stifle the advance of health discovery and the incorporation of genetic information into care.

She had a second motivation as a patient. A clear influence was the death of her sister from pneumonia despite being in doctors’ care. Louise knew genetics was key to improving health, but that if genetic information were used by employers or health insurers, there was a possibility for that information to qualify or disqualify one from coverage or benefits, hiring or firing.

ASHG: What can you tell us about Slaughter’s reaction to the passage of GINA?

Daryl: Louise was really pleased. A lot of hard work, dedication, and time had gone into its passage. To finally get GINA approved as a bicameral and bipartisan piece of legislation reflected her tireless efforts to advance the bill. Referred to as the first civil rights legislation of the new century, it was so necessary for the American public. She believed it was a no-brainer that it should be passed. She congratulated then-President Bush and her colleagues for bringing it to fruition.

ASHG: Ten years after its passage, how can the genetics community help ensure that GINA is implemented as intended?

Daryl: GINA is a great victory for patients and scientists, and you can expect that employers and insurers will continue to challenge it. The genetics community should look at challenges as they arrive and defend the law for its original intent. A key thing to keep in mind is that GINA prohibits even the collection of information by health insurers and employers. Lingering fears about genetic discrimination do not come from a fear of employers’ or insurers’ good intentions, but rather from a concern that genetic data could be exploited or misused. The genetics community should continue to oppose collection of genetic information by employers and health insurers.

ASHG: How is the passage of GINA an example of the impact that the ASHG/NHGRI fellowship has on advocacy?

Daryl: The fellowship promotes the advancement of research and the importance of genetics and genomics. Its impact is far-reaching, and GINA is just one example. Many bills before Congress have a need for genetics and genomics expertise. It is essential that the science is accurately represented in those conversations.

The ASHG/NHGRI fellowship brings the voice of genetics and genomics to legislation and needs to continue to do that by having a presence in different congressional offices. We need to be there. I appreciate the opportunity to have been the first fellow. The experience has been influential in advancing my career.

Daryl Pritchard, PhD, is Senior Vice President of Science Policy at the Personalized Medicine Coalition. He worked in Rep. Slaughter’s office in 2003 through the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship.

ASHG and FASEB: Working Together to Make a Difference in Advocacy & Policy!

Posted By: Jennifer Zeitzer, FASEB Director of Legislative Relations

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is the nation’s largest coalition of biomedical researchers, representing 30 scientific societies and more than 130,000 researchers from around the world. As a member of FASEB, ASHG works closely with FASEB and the other member societies to advance research and education in biological and biomedical sciences and advocate for increased funding for biomedical research. Through FASEB, ASHG also monitors and regularly speaks out on science policy issues impacting the scientific community.

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Jennifer Zeitzer, FASEB Director of Legislative Relations

For example, ASHG recently joined FASEB in celebrating the historic $3 billion dollar increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved by Congress in late March. Securing the increase was a collaborative effort between many organizations. ASHG urged its members to email and call their elected officials and sent two Board members to FASEB’s Capitol Hill Day to make the case for NIH funding with their members of Congress.

This month, Congress began consideration of the fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget, and ASHG and FASEB are again working together to advocate for increased NIH funding. There is a good chance NIH will receive another significant funding increase in FY 2019, thanks to legislation passed in February to raise strict spending caps that were enacted in 2011. The appropriations committees will determine how that additional funding is divided among federal agencies.

Making sure NIH gets another increase will require additional coordinated advocacy between ASHG and FASEB over the next few months. More information is forthcoming, but ASHG members should expect to receive e-alerts from FASEB as well as reminders to check out the resources and tools in the ASHG Advocacy Center.

ASHG members also have access to FASEB’s Advocacy Toolbox, which includes instructions for requesting a meeting with a member of Congress at home and tips for communicating with elected officials through social media. The Washington Update newsletter provides the latest news on science policy and advocacy inside the Beltway and from federal agencies (click here to subscribe).

Communicating about science is another area where ASHG partners with FASEB. The Human Microbiome and Individualized Medicine: Genetically Fine-Tuning Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Disease are articles in FASEB’s Breakthroughs in Bioscience series that illustrate genetics-related developments in biomedical research and their importance to society. Similarly, the Horizons in Bioscience one-pagers, including articles on liquid biopsies, CRISPR/Cas gene editing, epigenetics, and optogenetics, summarize scientific discoveries on the brink of clinical application and supplement the longer Breakthroughs.

The recent $3 billion increase for NIH and other advocacy successes would not have been possible without the joint effort between FASEB and its member societies. As Congress makes decisions about the 2019 budget, FASEB is proud to have a strong partnership with ASHG to ensure that the voices of scientists are heard on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts across the country.

Jennifer Zeitzer has been the Director of Legislative Relations at FASEB since 2008. She coordinates advocacy efforts with FASEB member societies and others in the biomedical research community, including organizing FASEB’s annual Capitol Hill Day.

FASEB offers free webinars on advocacy and policy issues. Sign up to receive notifications about future FASEB webinars here.

Representing ASHG and Genetics at FASEB’s Capitol Hill Day

Posted by: Neil Hanchard, MD, PhD, ASHG Board Member

I don’t consider myself to be particularly ‘political’; however, the last two Presidential budgets have included closing the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded building that houses my lab and office. This has made me keenly aware that the science we do doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I thus consider myself particularly fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in FASEB’s Capitol Hill Day (March 8) as a representative of ASHG. This now annual event brings scientists from across FASEB’s 31 experimental biology societies – including ASHG – to the Capitol to lobby for their own science. It’s timed to coincide with annual budget making season and, since it’s been going on longer than any of the more than 50 fellow scientists in the room knew for sure, it’s a central piece of FASEB’s public policy engagement.

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L-R: James Musser, FASEB President-elect; Sharma Prabhakar, AFMR; and Neil Hanchard, ASHG Board Member.

For me, getting up close and personal with the machinations that enable the science engine was a truly fascinating experience. The DC-based staff of FASEB and ASHG essentially do this all the time and, accordingly, were like a well-oiled sequencer. They did an amazing job of prepping first time scientists-come-lobbyists (like myself) – hosting prep sessions well before the event, as well the night before and morning of. Plus, they ensured that everyone was suitably armed with critical talking points for their State representatives and glossy summary pamphlets to go along with them. After a day running around (literally) meeting with State representatives’ aides in the halls and offices of the National’s Capitol, here are my top 5 takeaways:

  1. There is strength (and comfort) in numbers. FASEB represents ~130,000 scientists in the U.S. and around the world – that’s not a trivial number and the powers-that-be know it.
  2. The Capitol is very large. It’s a mind-boggling maze of offices and hallways, with a subway linking the two houses to boot. With multiple 10-15 minute meetings strewn across the “The Hill”, there’s no way we could have done it on our own – the FASEB facilitators, who included our own ASHG staff, knew not only where we were going, but each of the representatives’ voting and stances on science issues as well.
  3. There is an art to the lobby. There’s an etiquette to lobbying, with polite, often unwritten rules of how to deal – the mandatory exchange of business cards (which I forgot – whoops!); the pitch, the pivot (when you’ve lost your audience); the parting promises and closing invitations – a well-rehearsed dance that, performed well, can be the difference between a “yea” and a “nay”.
  4. Everyone wants their piece of the pie. The Lobby dance is performed by umpteen groups this time of year – if there’s a group you can think of, they were probably there. For scientists to get the funding they need to continue doing good science, they should remember that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
  5. Science is bipartisan. Somewhat surprisingly for me, the pitch for NIH, NSF, and USDA science was well-received at all of the Texas representatives’ offices we visited, irrespective of party affiliation. I also learned of several unheralded champions for science from both sides of the political aisle.
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After a chance hallway meeting with Rep. Al Green, the Texas group sat down with Rep. Green’s staffer to discuss the importance of biomedical research.

All in all, this was a truly enlightening and emboldening experience; honestly, if I can do it, pretty much anyone can, and there’s a strong argument that any and all scientists should – host a representative in your lab, visit your local representative’s office, make the phone call/sign the email – as jaded as I was about the process at the start, it was heartening to know that it can actually make a difference.

Neil Hanchard, MD, PhD, FACMG, serves as Early-Career Member of the ASHG Board of Directors. He is an Assistant Professor and Clinical Geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, and has been a member of ASHG since 2010.