Article originally published in Corporate Wellness Magazine
Amid rising healthcare costs in the U.S., it’s easy to forget that less than 3 percent of those costs are spent on prevention. With scientific advancements and the plummeting cost of genetic sequencing, however, genetic information now has the potential to drive unprecedented levels of prevention and early detection. As employers seek to bring down healthcare costs while attracting and retaining employees in competitive talent markets, leading companies like Visa, SAP, GE Appliances, and Tribune Media are integrating genetics into their preventive health strategy. Offering employees confidential access to genetic services that can help them learn their risk earlier and manage it better enables these employers to invest in their employees’ health, and the future of their business.
Here are the top three reasons that employers are offering genetic testing services as a voluntary health benefit for employees, and sometimes their families:
#1 Knowledge Can Save Lives
I was 29 years old when I found out I carry a mutation in the BRCA1 gene which gave me a greater than 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime. My genetic test results qualified me for screenings like mammograms and MRIs at a much earlier age than I otherwise would have. More importantly, my results greatly heightened my own awareness of the need to be proactive about my health.
So, two years later when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second daughter and I felt a lump, I insisted on an ultrasound and biopsy. Multiple doctors told me I had nothing to worry about since I’m young and lumpiness is common during pregnancy. But because of my genetic test results, they proceeded with the screening and caught my cancer at an earlier stage. It’s often said that knowledge is power. In my case it was life-saving.
Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of people with genetic mutations like BRCA1 aren’t aware of their elevated risk. What’s more, many don’t meet criteria to receive genetic testing through the traditional health insurance system. The criteria often require an extensive family history of cancer, which isn’t always present in people with mutations. For example, about 50 percent of women with certain risk-increasing mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes don’t have a significant family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
“I first had testing done when my son was offered genetic testing through his employer. I was very shocked when I heard that I had the mutation. I have zero cancer in my family. We knew nothing about BRCA2. I really felt that everyone needed to be tested right away.”
– Lauren, Color customer
Employees who know their risk are better able to develop a risk management plan with their healthcare providers, which in some cases will enable early cancer detection and outright prevention. The increase in 5-year survival rate for hereditary cancers caught at an early vs. advanced stage is striking: for breast cancer, for example, early-stage cancers have a 98 percent 5-year survival rate vs. 25 percent for advanced stage cancers.
#2 Early Detection and Prevention Lowers Treatment Costs
Prevention and early detection reduce treatment costs along with saving lives. The estimated cost of treatment for breast cancer caught at an early stage is over 50 percent less than that caught at an advanced stage. Cost reductions are similar or meaningfully more for other hereditary cancers as well.
SAP recently launched Color as a voluntary health benefit for its employees and their families. In just the first two months, Color identified over 100 people with genetic mutations that elevate their risk for hereditary cancers. For SAP, that’s a potential multi-million dollar exposure in treatment costs alone. More surprisingly, approximately 60 percent of these people wouldn’t have met insurance criteria to qualify for genetic testing. These higher-risk employees can now better manage their health and avoid higher treatment costs down the road, for SAP and themselves.
“Visa offers the Color test because it’s a perfect fit with our preventive health strategy. Our employees love it, and we’ve seen exceptionally strong utilization. From a cost perspective, it was a no-brainer for us, as avoiding even one late-stage cancer case would cover the entire cost of the program.”
– Amanda McCullough, VP of Global Benefits, Visa*
#3 Federal Rules Protect Privacy and Prevent Discrimination
Employers and employees alike wonder about the privacy of genetic data and whether people who get tested risk being discriminated against based on their results. Employers should make sure their genetic testing partners are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”), and implement technical safeguards to protect patient information. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) serve as federal protections to prohibit discrimination using genetic information for health insurance and employment status. Some state laws further protect against discrimination in the areas of life insurance, housing, and emergency medical services.
Personalized medicine and precision prevention are on the rise. Offering genetic testing services to your employees can put your company on the path to better health outcomes and lower treatment costs.