Oak Mountain High School students in AP Government and AP Biology participated in a special collaboration recently to recreate the process of lobbying Congress to pass the Genetics Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which was enacted to prohibit the use of genetic information in denying individuals health insurance or employment. The long-awaited measure was debated in Congress for 13 years before its passage.
OMHS AP Biology students, who have spent over a month studying genetics, played the roles of various lobbyist organizations, including insurance providers, non-profit organizations, and scientists who were lobbying both for and against passage of the bill. AP Government students, who have just completed a study on Congress, played members of Congress.
Examples of lobbyists organizations who argued for passage of the bill included non-profit breast cancer research and prevention groups, genetic counselors and physicians, and scientists who argued the bill would provide protection for individuals who might otherwise face barriers in gaining health insurance or employment if their genetic history or family medical history was used against them.
Researchers and scientists were especially concerned that people would not undergo voluntary genetic testing for fear of discrimination. Their potential lack of participation could diminish research efforts which are still needed to find cures and treatments for certain diseases with genetic links. These groups also argued that a patients’ discovery of certain genetic disorders could lead to early life-saving treatments that would ultimately be less expensive than treating the disease later.
Students portraying breast cancer prevention advocates also argued that mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genes place individuals at a much higher rate of contracting breast cancer. These students argued that armed with the knowledge of having a genetic predisposition to these gene mutations could help patients decide on preventative treatments that would likely save their lives and cost health insurance companies less money that costly treatments once cancer had developed.
The students lobbying for passage of the bill also argued against discrimination of individuals because of preexisting health conditions, but also racial discrimination due to certain genetic conditions such as Sickle Cell Anemia, which impacts African-Americans. They also argued that individuals with genetic conditions should not be discriminated against for being “at risk” for developing certain diseases when there is no guarantee that they actually will.
Students playing the roles of health insurance providers argued that the bill was too broad and didn’t apply to life insurance, disability, or long-term care insurance providers. They felt if those insurance providers are allowed to deny coverage based on pre-existing genetic conditions, then they should be allowed to deny health care coverage also. They also argued that having to provide health insurance to individuals with genetic predispositions would force them to raise rates and premiums on all individuals to cover the costs.
After hearing presentations from each group, various students representing members of Congress questioned them regarding their stance regarding the bill. Some members of Congress asked questions about the potential costs of the bill to employers, the need for the bill since other measures were already in place to prevent discrimination, and why certain groups such as active military members and veterans are excluded in the bill.
While some of the students participating in the project have only taken one class or the other, there were several students who were currently taking both AP courses. In those cases, some of the students were able to participate in multiple class periods portraying both lobbyists and Congressional members.
AP Government teacher Susan Schwartz said the crossover project between the two classes was very successful and will become an annual event. She noted that both teachers have already learned from the first experience and made notes of how to improve for next year.
“I will make sure that my students have really studied and fully understand the GINA Act,” Schwartz said. “That will help them to have better interaction as members of Congress with the various lobbyists. But, we are thrilled with how this first year went. I think it was an incredible experience for the students.”