As tests explore genetic markers related to excessive weight gain, and breast and ovarian cancer, companies as well as employees are seeing returns on investment and participation
In a development that is auspicious for medical laboratories, more genetic tests are making their way into more corporate health benefit plans. Big brands—from Aetna to Visa—are partnering with personalized health companies and clinical lab companies doing genetic testing as they support tests to help employees head-off health risks.
Employers’ sponsorship of genetic testing is a trend that could become more common, noted Fortune. But human resources and benefits experts say the offerings are still uncommon. There are also unresolved issues, such as when genetic test results are inconclusive or questionable.
For medical laboratories, the companies’ genetic testing benefits could prompt more test orders from healthcare consumers. Based on the results of their genetic tests, people might decide to make lifestyle changes, work toward prevention of chronic conditions, and take further tests to assess progress.
Corporations Are Assessing the Value of Genetic Testing Benefits
Tests for genetic markers related to metabolism, weight gain, and overeating are offered for free (or they are subsidized) to employees by a few employers, reported the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Also, 18 Silicon Valley-based companies subsidize employees’ genetic tests for breast and ovarian cancers, according to a Workforce story.
Newtopia’s genetic testing focuses on genes that have been scientifically linked to obesity including:
Each gene is related to eating behavior, appetite, and body fat, respectively.
One of its partners in the pilot genetic-based wellness program was Jackson Laboratory, a Bar Harbor, Maine, genetics research center. There, 29 employees participated and sent small amounts of saliva for testing on variations of the three weight-related genes, noted the WSJ.
Enrollees in the program get genetic information as well as coaching in nutrition, exercise, and behavior management, according to Newtopia. The company reportedly charges $500 per employee annually.
“Knowing you may have a genetic strike or two against you, now you are going to work harder,” said Jeff Ruby, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Newtopia, in the WSJ article.
Employees and Employers Get Results from Their Use of Genetic Tests
And what results have employees and employers achieved from genetic testing services?
Aetna reported in an article on its website these results from a year-long pilot program with Newtopia:
• 76 of the participating 400 employees reported significant weight loss with an average loss of 10 pounds;
• Participants improved risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome including waist size, triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol.
Also, according to an article on Monster.com, a global online employment search engine, more than half the program enrollees sustained involvement for at least a year, compared to the industry average of 15%.
As to employer benefits, Aetna’s average healthcare costs were reduced by $122 per participant per month (or $1,464 per year). The program also made a positive return on the company’s investment in the first year, according to a Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) article about the program.
“At scale, such programs would be expected to lead to significant downstream reduction in major clinical events and costs,” the Aetna-affiliated authors pointed out in the JOEM article.
Aetna’s participating employees had an increased risk for metabolic syndrome. They obtained a genetic profile, traditional psychosocial assessment, and high-intensity coaching.
“The implications are that for lifestyle wellness programs to be successful, they need to be targeted to the appropriate higher risk individuals and be well-designed and implemented,” the JOEM article stated.
Pursuant to the pilot program results, Aetna said it is offering the Newtopia program of genetic testing to its largest customers as well as to employees.
Silicon Valley Employers Offering Genetic Testing for Cancers
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, Calif., genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer is being offered to employees by a few companies and venture capital firms in partnership with Color Genomics, a genetic testing start-up in San Francisco, Fortune reported.
Employees who volunteer to participate reportedly receive a 50% discount on the Color Genomics test, which costs $249 (some may get the entire cost covered). This is well below the usual cost of between $400 and $4,000 for breast or ovarian cancer tests, Workforce reported.
With its below market cost and the employee discount, Color Genomics is seeking to improve access to genetic testing by making it affordable, Othman Laraki, President and Co-Founder of Color Genomics, told Workforce.
Color Genomics describes its Color Test as a physician-ordered genetic test for breast and ovarian cancer risk that also includes genetic counseling. Easing access to the test is important, the company said, because research suggests about 50% of people who have BRCA1 mutations do not have significant family history. So, they may not seek genetic testing due to high costs and lack of insurance.
Genetic Testing Benefits Still Growing
Getting a genetic test on an employer’s tab, however, is still not so easy to do. In fact, a spokesperson at the Society for Human Resources Management told the Sacramento Business Journal that genetic testing is not even part of its survey that lists 300 benefit offerings.
Federal regulators have weighed in on issues facing employer wellness programs, too. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes that employee participation in a service or benefit that includes genetic tests must be promoted by employers as “voluntary.”
Other experts say employers may be skeptical about the benefits of genetic testing, especially for cancer. “Even though people who have the gene mutation will be told that a marker is just a marker and doesn’t mean that they will develop a condition, it will initiate a number of other tests or even surgery or radiology that can put them at even greater risk,” said Michael Cryer, MD, Senior Vice President and Medical Director for Aon Consulting, in the Workforce article. Aon is a risk management, insurance, and reinsurance brokerage.
Genetic testing may grow, albeit slowly, as a corporate benefit. As it does, pathologists and laboratory executives may find opportunities to educate others on what results of genetic tests actually mean. Furthermore, medical laboratories could attract new test volume associated with diagnostics aimed at disease prevention for consumers who have a health benefit program that includes such lab testing.
—Donna Marie Pocius