SD philanthropist Sanford giving $125M to Dakotas-based health system to expand genetics use

  • Article by: DIRK LAMMERS , Associated Press
  • Updated: January 7, 2014 - 2:55 PM

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford is giving another $125 million to the Dakotas-based health system that bears his name for a program that will incorporate genetics into primary care, Sanford Health executives announced Tuesday.

Kelby Krabbenhoft, the system's chief executive officer, said internal medicine is at the crossroads of all aspects of health care, and combining it with genetics is "the perfect marriage." Sanford Imagenetics will make genetic testing a part of everyday care, he said.

"This is going to have a huge impact in our part of the country," Krabbenhoft said during an announcement in Sioux Falls.

By later this year, Sanford's clinics in Sioux Falls, Fargo, N.D., Bismarck, N.D., and Bemidji , Minn., will have genetic counselors on staff. Genetic consulting will eventually be available at all the health system's regional locations through telemedicine, said Gene Hoyme, president of Sanford Research.

Eric Larson, a Sanford internal medicine physician, said a patient would be able to give a blood sample and have genetic information pulled in a lab similar to the way a technician tests for cholesterol or blood sugar. The information would be placed on a glass side, called a chip, and the genetic information would be stored in a patient's private electronic medical record.

A chip initially would be used to determine how a patient metabolizes 400 different medications, which could help avoid adverse drug reactions and side effects.

"Currently, we have no idea how a particular patient will respond to a particular drug," Larson said.

Chips will eventually be used to predict how someone might be predisposed to a particular disease.

Sanford Health, a Sioux Falls- and Fargo, N.D.-based system with locations in 126 communities in nine states, estimates that the cost of genetic counseling and testing could run anywhere from $200 to $3,000 out of pocket, depending on the specific test.

Dan Blue, president of Sanford Clinic, said Sanford's own health insurance plan will cover the genetic tests, and he thinks others insurers will follow suit when they see how the tests can help them avoid paying for unnecessary complications.

Generally, health insurers will cover genetic testing when it's medically necessary to establish a diagnosis of an inheritable disease, said Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a national trade group representing health insurers.

Pisano said insurers look at several criteria: There must be a clinical basis for suspecting the patient has the disease, there must be a good test available and there must be an available treatment if the test is positive.

"Is there something that can be done about it?" Pisano said.

The patient would also need to undergo genetic counseling to understand the findings, she added.

The money from T. Denny Sanford, a 78-year-old retired banker and businessman, will also be used to develop a research program to define successful genomic markers, recruit top geneticists and partner with Augustana College and the University of South Dakota for workforce development and education.

Sanford in 2007 gave $400 million the Sioux Valley health system, which then adopted his name. He has given the system nearly $1 billion.

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