Montana Voices: Bill allows mandatory genetic testing of workers

By David Crisp/Last Best News

Idly trolling for news about the Republicans’ healthcare plan, I ran across a health insurance story that raised my conservative hackles. Or was it my liberal hackles? These days, it’s hard to tell.

David Crisp

You don’t need me to tell you about the healthcare plan, which has been all over the news. Short summary: good deal if you are young, healthy and prosperous; bad deal if you aren’t. In Yellowstone County, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a 27-year-old earning $50,000 a year would be $2,000 better off under the Republican plan than under Obamacare. A 60-year-old earning $20,000 would be $7,810 worse off.

But I was inflamed by a relatively obscure story. The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week voted for HR 1313, which would allow companies to penalize employees who refuse to submit to genetic testing.

Under provisions of Obamacare, companies already could raise insurance premiums on employees who refused to take part in company wellness programs. HR 1313 expands company control over employees’ fitness by allowing employers to hike insurance rates on employees who won’t submit to genetic testing, which could expose an underlying potential for health problems among workers and their families.

What’s left of my hair caught fire. It’s bad enough, I thought, that bosses want to know how much I smoke and drink, how much I weigh, how high my cholesterol is and how often I work out. At least I have some control over those things. But I have no control over what my genes say about my health.

So who would vote for such a heavy-handed imposition on the privacy of me and my family? Nosy bureaucrats? Nanny state do-gooders? Relapsing Stalinists?

According to STAT, published by Boston Globe Media, Republicans voted for the bill 22-0. Democrats opposed it 17-0.

So here’s the question: Who are the conservatives? The question genuinely puzzles me. Ed Kemmick will have more to say about an ongoing survey of Last Best News readers, but some of the comments complain that the site leans too far to the left. It’s a complaint common to just about all journalists, but I struggle to understand what it means.

I think of myself as a pretty conservative guy. I sport no tattoos or earrings. I have burned no flags or draft cards. I have been faithfully married for nearly 40 years. I have, in Roger Clawson’s phrase, committed capitalism. I teach college freshmen where commas go, for God’s sake, because I know God cares about commas.

Like most conservatives, I tend to favor policies that prevailed when I was becoming politically aware: Medicare, cheap college tuition, free trade, vigorous anti-trust enforcement. I believe the Constitution should be respected, budgets should be balanced, politicians should be moral exemplars, and baseball should be played on grass.

In three decades as a reporter and editor I have made my share of mistakes, but I have never knowingly suppressed or distorted a fact to make one side of an issue look better than the other. If you have evidence to the contrary, please rebut. And if all of that is too liberal a résumé, then what does it take?

Perhaps it has something to do with the increased congressional polarization, which is higher now than at any time since 1879, the earliest date for which data exist. Voters no longer choose an ideology; they choose a team.

Perhaps it’s that an accumulating pile of evidence shows that facts do very little to shape public opinion and may in fact simply reinforce existing false beliefs. Or maybe I’m harboring longstanding liberal biases I picked up from reading all of those Russian writers or smoking that marijuana in college.

Maybe I spent so many years listening to conservative talk radio that I just subconsciously assume that everything a conservative says is fabricated or exaggerated. But I did pass a mental test of that theory last week when my wife got a free tryout of satellite radio for her car. I actually found a liberal talk show, and it took only about five minutes for me to get as outraged by a nonsensical abuse of facts as I ever got while listening to Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.

But then something like HR 1313 comes along and all of my theories about liberals and conservatives collapse in a heap. I get that Republicans generally worry less about companies poking into their employees’ lives than about government doing it. But they also must know that when 81 percent of the nation’s companies employing at least 200 people offer at least one wellness program, and about half of smaller companies do, then we are closer to a national mandate than to an open marketplace where employers and employees bargain freely.

I also get that workers who don’t drink or smoke and who work out daily don’t want to see their insurance rates go up because of lazy couch potatoes like me. Michael Savage was making that case on talk radio just this week.

But even Savage, who is closer to a nihilist than to a conservative, must know that strategy has its limits. How much is my boss, or the government, entitled to know about my life? That I hike solo without bear spray? That I banged my head in rugby scrums in college? That I drink five cups of coffee a day?

There has to be some kind of limit. If liberals and conservatives could agree on that, perhaps we could begin to sort out what they really believe.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and columnist for LastBestNews.com.