Seeing Growing Interest, Consultants Seek to Link Genomics With Insurance, Other Benefits

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – As genomic testing of various forms has become more available and of more interest not just to the medical community but also to healthy individuals, a number of testing models have emerged beyond the traditional medical or clinical laboratory.

The most visible of these has been consumer genomics companies like 23andMe, or more recently, companies like Color Genomics and others, which are consumer-facing, but still require the participation of doctors in the test ordering process.

A variety of firms has also sprung up to help connect facilities that perform genomic analysis and end users by either providing an interface or a middleman between sequencing cores and the clinical research community, or — with new firms like Helix and Sequencing.com — helping consumers obtain and house their own genomic data and providing a forum to interact with various analysis tools and applications.

Now a new company called Wamberg Genomic Advisers is attempting to carve out a new niche in this evolving landscape — as an advisory firm that helps broker deals to package genomic sequencing and other genetic testing options with things like employer-provided benefits and life insurance.

Tom Wamberg, the new company's CEO, said this week that the goal of its service is to increase and simplify access to genomic tests, whether that is through bundling with life insurance policies, or adding testing to the growing services that are offered to employees as part of job benefit packages.

"Our goal is to be the conduit, or the bridge, between two large industries … on the supply side helping labs and sequencers build out products and reporting formats that are more commercially friendly … [and] interfacing with two main types of clients — life insurance companies and employee benefits brokers,” Wamberg said.

According to Wamberg, these two groups are "lining up to be the next larger consumer of genomic products."

This, he believes, is being driven by the lowering costs of genomic testing, an understanding among life insurers of the potential health and longevity benefits to their clients, and a greater provision of voluntary benefits by employers.

End users — employees of various companies or life insurance policyholders — will have new and varied inroads to accessing genetic testing.

In the context of employee benefits, genomics could become voluntary benefits, Wamberg said, which employees could pay for out of their paycheck, potentially pre-tax in the case of health savings accounts.

In the life insurance context, companies could either offer tests with a similar model, incorporating the cost into premiums, or pay for it themselves out of recognition of the ultimate benefit to their bottom line.

"Life insurers want to invest in the health of their client," Wamberg said. "They are strategically attracted to anything that helps policy holders live longer healthier lives because they can collect premiums longer and pay claims later … so there is a [rationale for] direct connection to genomic products."

WGA meanwhile, will collect fees from these two categories of clients for providing its curatorial guidance in terms of supplying or bundling specific genomic testing products.

The firm will also have fee-for-service arrangements based on how much sequencing or other genetic testing is purchased.

The plan is to collect and feature a small number of specific products for each of what are currently a handful of areas — pharmacogenomics, comprehensive genomic profiling, exome sequencing, and whole-genome sequencing.

Mark Winham, WGA's chief scientific and operating officer said that the company has a few deals already in place with genomics vendors in these categories, and others are currently in the works, but it has not yet made any partnerships public.

According to Wamberg, life insurance companies and employers are well aware of and respectful of genetic privacy law.

In the setting of life insurance specifically, he argued that companies recognize clearly that while there could be short-term benefits to using genomics to inform coverage, the potential for testing to affect business in the long term — by prolonging customers' lives — is greater.

He said that WGA met with the CEOs of several major life insurance companies who make up the board of the American Council of Life Insurers.

Although they didn’t write up formal proposal in their minutes, they said uniformly that they don't want to risk the legal implications of denying coverage, Wamberg said.

Currently, he added, "none of the major payors ask for anything about your genomic history."

"You can apply today for life insurance with [WGS results] in your hand, and they wont even take it if you offer it," he said.

Despite this, the public perception of privacy risks could hinder the business model WGA is pursuing.

Leaders in the genomics research field have expressed concern about a dampening of participation in genomic studies based on fears of discrimination, especially with the potential for changes in how the law treats genomics in the context of employment.

For example, researchers have said that H.R. 1313, the "Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act," which would alter current law so that employee wellness programs could base rewards on the condition that employees divulge genetic information, could significantly harm recruitment for genetics research.

Because of this, there is a possibility that linking genomic testing services to other benefits packages could make them, if anything, less attractive to consumers.

And although Wamberg highlighted the fact that major insurers have put up solid walls to separate their coverage decisions from customers' genomic history, some life insurance businesses have begun to actively incorporate genomics into their underwriting process.

GWG Life, a company focusing on the secondary life insurance market, said this March that as part of its underwriting process it had begun collecting saliva samples from potential customers and analyzing epigenetic biomarkers identified by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Overall though, Wamberg said that he and his colleagues remain confident that employee benefit programs and life insurance policies are some of the most promising avenues for widespread delivery of genomic testing, regardless of these concerns.

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