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In 2010, Pamela Fink, an employee of a Connecticut energy company, made a new kind of discrimination claim: she charged that she had been fired because she carries genes that predispose her to cancer. Fink quickly became the public face for the cutting edge of civil rights: genetic discrimination.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which was passed out of concern for just such cases in the wake of huge advances in genetics testing, took effect in late 2009. GINA, as it is known, makes it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire workers based on their “genetic information” — including genetic tests and family history of disease. GINA doesn’t just apply to employers: health-insurance companies can be sued for using genetic information to set rates or even just for investigating people’s genes.

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There have not been any landmark cases or huge jury awards yet under GINA, but genetic discrimination is real. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s annual report, released last month, there were 245 genetic-discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2011, up more than 20% from a year earlier. At the same time, the EEOC reported that the “monetary benefits” it helped collect related to genetic discrimination — in damages, back pay and other penalties — jumped more than sixfold, from $80,000 to $500,000.

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