US Military Discriminates Against Service Members With Genetic Diseases

US Military Discriminates Against Service Members With Genetic Diseases

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 30, 2007 in DNA Testing, DNA in General, Jobs Involving DNA

air force studentsService members of the US Armed Forces may risk their lives for their country but if they’ve got a disease-causing genetic mutation, they are shown the door. Karen Kaplan at the LA Times writes on a disturbing US armed forces policy to deny benefits to servicemen and women who have congenital or hereditary conditions unless they’ve already served 8 years.

Kathy Hudson of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University:

You could be in the military and be a six-pack-a-day smoker, and if you come down with emphysema, ‘That’s OK. We’ve got you covered. But if you happen to have a disease where there is an identified genetic contribution, you are screwed.

It’s an antiquated policy that was meant to prevent people from enlisting for health benefits knowing they would later develop a serious and/or life-threatening condition. Ironically, genetic discrimination against civilian employees in the federal government was banned in 2000. The same could happen to all insurance policy holders if the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 isn’t passed into law but even if it is, it won’t apply to military personnel.

To keep their military patients from being denied health benefits, doctors are now advising their patients to avoid genetic testing of all forms, including private testing. Dr. Mark Nunes, who headed the Air Force Genetics Center’s DNA diagnostic laboratory at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi:

If someone called me up with regard to genetic testing, I had to say, ‘That might not be something you want to pursue.”

You could get court-martialed if it were revealed that you had sought medical treatment or testing outside the system.

This is shocking and dismaying. How soon will it be before the US armed forces (or any other country) begin genetic screening of recruits? As if it’s not already hard enough to get qualified people to serve. Who would want to join the military knowing they may not get the benefits they deserve, especially health benefits which is undeniably one of the most important.

For more on genetic discrimination against job applicants, see my previous post – Want a job? Submit your DNA.

More on genetic discrimination in the military:

NB: The 81st Medical Group operating out of Keesler Air Force Base has the only medical genetics center in the Department of Defense.



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Comment by jhay

Is this still part of that “perfect soldier” myth? sheesh, when would the militiary ever grow up?

Comment by Hsien

In this case, jhay, it probably has more to do with the bottom line – money.

Comment by Nelson Guirado Subscribed to comments via email

You miss the idea behind the Army’s policy: They’re not responsible. As much sympathy as you have for people with these problems, we’re kind of losing our ability to reason unemotionally. People shouldn’t have to pay for that which they’re not responsible. If you want to help, that’s another thing.

Comment by Hsien

Hi Nelson. Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I didn’t miss the idea behind their policy. Of course they want to dodge responsibility and costs wherever they can but why should genetic predisposition be different from other behaviors that increase a person’s risk of disease? If, by your logic, the military doesn’t have to pay for what’s not their responsibility then I guess the only kind of benefits they are obligated to offer to service members are those directly related to combat or active duty?

If a soldier smokes, drinks too much alcohol, eats too much fatty food, should s/he he be denied medical coverage as well? Genetic risk factors are like other risk factors in many ways. There’s nothing more sinister about a disease that can be attributed to genes. In fact, almost all disease have a genetic component. How does the military plan to keep track of that? Genetic screening of servicemen and women can’t be too far away.

Comment by Nelson Guirado Subscribed to comments via email

Actually, the Army (I’m in the Army) does only pay for injuries incurred during service. We should help people. That’s not my point. I just think to call people irresponsible for ignoring things for which they’re not responsible is not a good way to conduct business.

We also need a little common sense. Lot’s of things have genetic components, like you said, but, like everything in life, we need to find a place where we can draw a line.

It seems easy to hold large entities responsible because it’s just a little more money. But think of that principal applied personally. Do you want to be held liable for your web designer’s (nice job, by the way) carpal tunnel or eyesight because he has exceptionally weak cartilage or especially sensittive eyes?

Comment by Hsien

Nelson, Thanks for the info. Obviously I don’t know too much about what benefits the military provides but I’m shocked that all-purpose health insurance isn’t available. (I’ve emailed a friend of mine whose husband is a doctor in the Air Force stationed in Italy to ask for clarification.)

As for the web designer’s health problems, if I were to hire one full-time as an employee, I would certainly provide adequate health insurance to ensure the s/eh would get the care needed.

Comment by origins g Subscribed to comments via email

Thank you for posting this story. Aside from the fact that the policy is legally and scientifically inconsistent and unfair on many levels, it remains appalling mostly because these soldiers are willing to sacrifice so much of themselves in service. Having served a bit of time with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC) as a Navy Corpsman, I can understand the cold hearted logic of the policy (exclude freeloaders looking for benefits for a pre-existing condition), but this does not jibe with the current situation. With so many troops rotating through hostile areas – who can really be considered a freeloader ? These service people have EARNED and are deserving of much better treatment.

Comment by Hsien

Thanks for the input, origins g. I certainly agree that if employees have dedicated their lives to a company, they deserve to get adequate benefits – health insurance, pensions, and otherwise. Not saying that all companies do right by their staff but they should. The US military is an employer and service people their employees. It’s as simple as that. What’s worse, they’re sending their employees “into harm’s way” so what the heck with not providing them basic health insurance?!

Comment by Nelson Guirado Subscribed to comments via email

Let me clarify. I’m not saying anybody is a freeloader or that we shouldn’t help people or even that the policy shouldn’t be changed (unless they knew and didn’t report it). I guess it’s mostly an ideological stance: That people should only be forced, legally, to pay for those things for which they’re responsible.

Comment by Hsien

I understand, Nelson. It’s just really hard to figure who’s responsible. That’s what insurance is supposed to be for!

Comment by chris

What is the rule on having Bipolar Disorder and joining the military?

Hi Chris,

I found this answer on the Army National Guard forum:

3. One was diagnosed as bipolar as a child, but is no longer on any medication or specific treatment for it. Will this affect his ability to join?

Normally this done on a case by case basis. The prospective applicant would gather all of the pertinent documents from their doctor and submit a medical pre-evaluation (which is done through a recruiter). The Chief Medical Officer will review the documents and make a determination from the facts(i.e. Medical Documents) that are available at his disposal.


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