Benefits

Genetic Testing Gets Toothy as a Workplace Benefit

By Andie Burjek

Nov. 30, 2016

genetictesting_300Amway Corp. is joining a growing list of large employers adopting genetic testing as a workplace benefit.

Starting in January, the multilevel marketing giant will offer genetic testing by Interleukin Genetics Inc., a Waltham, Massachusetts, developer of genetic tests for chronic inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Using a cheek swab, Interleukin’s ILUSTRA genetic risk test, previously called PerioPredict, can detect a person’s tolerance of inflammation levels, said Interleukin CEO Mark Carbeau. Proper dental care can lower inflammation levels, which affect other areas of health, like risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, he said.

“Inflammatory burden systemically is created by bacteria in your gums, so the notion is if we clean up your mouth, we can cool down a large source of chronic inflammation and that allows the body to control and manage those other sources more effectively,” Carbeau said.

Amway joins the likes of Visa Inc. and insurer Aetna Inc. to introduce genetic testing for employees. Visa is offering genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer, while Aetna implemented a pilot program testing employees at risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Companies including venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and online survey company SurveyMonkey also are using genetic testing among their employee population.

Genetic testing in the workplace presents legal hurdles that could limit wider use, said Seth Perretta, partner with Groom Law in Washington, D.C.

Companies can’t require employees to take a medical exam under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA, a federal law protecting people from genetic discrimination in health care and employment, employers can’t tie a financial incentive to the completion of a genetic testing program.

“Offering genetic testing outside a major medical plan would be rife with legal risk for the employer,” said Perretta. “It would almost certainly have to be structured as part of the major med plan or limited to folks enrolled in an employer-sponsored med plan. And it would have to be fully voluntary.”

Still, there’s value to it, Perretta added. “But for some reason Congress has clearly spoken that from a policy perspective, they’d rather have the ailment manifest itself prior to an employer getting involved.”

There are also privacy concerns. It can feel like a step down the path of the employer getting too involved in the personal lives of its employees, said Jim Winkler, Aon Hewitt’s global health innovation leader. Employees need to know that their employers won’t have access to the data, and employers have to communicate that effectively, he said.

Interleukin’s program is a voluntary benefit that is covered by GINA. Interleukin explains to the employer the test’s purpose and how it would be used, but only provides the genetic information to the employee’s individual dentist.

Amway chose to offer this in their group health plan to encourage employees to expand their awareness of their personal health risks and the various resources available to them, said Tom Boehr, manager of corporate wellness and employee engagement at Amway, in an email.

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Like “many things in our lives that are technology enabled, there is probably an element of inevitability to this. It’s just a question of, ‘Is it in the next year? The next five years? The next 20 years?’” said Winkler.

“The offering is another form of education that Amway is introducing to its employees in order to further empower them to make health care choices that are in their best interest,” Boehr said.

Genetic testing is still new in the benefits space, but Winkler believes that, like “many things in our lives that are technology enabled, there is probably an element of inevitability to this. It’s just a question of, ‘Is it in the next year? The next five years? The next 20 years?’ ” he said.
The technology involved and the equipment used are becoming more efficient and less expensive. Ten years ago, the costs to isolate specific attributes of DNA was in the tens of thousands of dollars, and today it’s in the hundreds of dollars, Winkler said. Possibly, as genetic testing solutions become less expensive, consumers may become more interested, at which point employers wouldn’t even necessarily have to offer the benefit.

He compared it to Fitbits and other wearable devices. Five years ago, the only people who used them were the ones who got them from their employer. Now, they have a huge commercial market.

“You could start to see this in the genetic testing space as well — over what period of time, I don’t know,” he said.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce.com.

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