And throw up both my hands
Make me wanna holler
They don’t understand
Inner City Blues, written by Marvin Gaye and James Nyx, Jr
Multigene panels have perked up the world of hereditary cancer testing. After 15 years of Myriad-dominated BRCA testing as pretty much the only testing option for at-risk families, cancer genetic predisposition testing has been reinvigorated by a whole slew of labs offering a bewildering array of testing options – panels focused on a specific type of cancer, panels limited to highly penetrant genes only, multi cancer gene panels, panels that include moderately penetrant genes, and even design-your-own panels. This isn’t a perfect world and the pick-up rate of new mutations is a bit disappointing. Still, sunshine and fresh air are starting to flow through some of the dark and musty corners of hereditary cancer risk testing.
But all of a sudden health insurers are starting to rain on the parade of new tests. Over the past year, a number of health insurers – local and national – have backed off from covering multigene panel tests after having previously provided coverage. Regence Blue Shield, First Choice, HMA, CIGNA (with a few rare exceptions), BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas, and now Federal Blue Cross and Aetna (which doesn’t even cover large genomic rearrangement testing!), among others, have put policies in place that specifically exclude coverage of multigene panels. What’s going on here?
I don’t want to stereotype health insurers as amoral profiteers looking to cut a few corners to increase their bottom lines by denying recommended medical care (though admittedly the temptation to do so was strong). That is foolish name calling that gets us nowhere. The policy changes are presumably based on a lack of data on our part rather than a lack of conscience on the part of the insurance industry. Why should insurers cover multigene panels if care providers can’t demonstrate that they improve patient outcomes or make for more economical use of medical resources? Health care costs are expanding at a quicker rate than the visible universe and any new tests should have clear-cut medical or economic benefits.
The problem lies in the very nature of genetic disease. Genetic conditions are rare. Even with the BRCA genes, the most common highly penetrant cancer risk genes, it took nearly ten years to accumulate convincing data on clinical utility and cost effectiveness. All of the other cancer risk associated genes are far less common. It is impossible to conduct clinical and cost-effectiveness studies on each gene, especially for the moderately penetrant genes. Simply put, we will never be able to provide the data that insurers are demanding.
But enough kvetching. Let me offer some ways to address this problem.
- Insurers need to understand that this is a whole new world in genetics and therefore they must use different standards for determining coverage for testing for uncommon conditions. An alternative way of thinking is to look at genetic diseases as defects in pathways rather than as isolated genes. Given what we have learned about the BRCA/Fanconi pathway, it is reasonable to assume that many genes in the pathway – NBN, PALB2, ATM, etc. – will have some impact on cancer risk. If research can demonstrate the benefits of testing for one gene in a pathway, this should provide solid ground for assuming that testing other genes in the pathway will likely be beneficial as well. Adding more genes to a testing panel should result in greater medical benefits, though admittedly to varying degrees. Sure a few genes in a pathway may eventually turn out to have little clinical value, but those can be discarded along the way.
- Insurers must realize that adding more tests to a panel does not substantially increase the costs. Thanks to massively parallel sequencing, it costs no more to run four genetic tests than it does to run forty genetic tests. While the greater number of positive genetic test results may result in greater indirect costs because more patients will test positive for a mutation and will be undergoing screening and risk reducing procedures, this will be partially offset by eliminating the need for screening and prophylactic measures in family members who test negative for familial mutations. In a high risk family where no mutation has been identified, everyone in the family needs testing. However, if a mutation is found in the family, on average only half as many people will be high risk.
- Insurers should make multigene panel testing contingent on genetic counseling with a qualified professional to help assure that patients are provided with the most accurate and up to date information about the clinical implications of the test results.
- Clinical guidelines of professional organizations such as the NSGC, ACMG, NCCN, ASCO, should endorse multigene panels. Not necessarily specific gene panels, but rather the concept of multigene panels in general. Insurers will have a harder time denying coverage for a test if is widely recommended by groups that help set standards of care.
- We must continue to conduct clinical and economic studies to help determine the utility of multigene panels. The studies will require broad cooperation among labs, research institutions and individual researchers, patient organizations, and international consortia. And genetic counselors should be at the forefront of these studies. We are the boots on the ground for almost every new genetic test and are in a prime position to lead research efforts. We should be driving this mule team, not sitting in the back of the wagon hoping that we don’t fall off at the next bump.
- As I have discussed previously, there is reason to believe that some labs may be engaging in deceptive billing practices if they do not let insurers know that a panel is being but the insurer is only billed for BRCA analysis. This, in my view, is frankly unethical and creates an atmosphere of distrust. I would not be surprised if this has partially contributed to insurers’ reluctance to cover multigene panel testing. Such practices, if they are taking place, must be discontinued. Honesty and openness are sine qua non in any relationship.
Patients have the potential to benefit greatly from advances in genetic testing. But new technologies also create new challenges and require new ways of thinking about the care that we provide and how we justify paying for it.