Health plans expand services to boost members’ fitness

Analysts say such perks as gym memberships and personal trainers are designed to entice healthier individuals to buy plans.

By — Posted June 12, 2012

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Health plans are making moves toward offering one-on-one, customized health coaching to members, a new benefit they say members demand.

An example of the industry’s direction came from WellPoint in May. The country’s second-largest private health insurer by membership announced it will offer some members access to a full-service online personal trainer who will be at the member’s beck and call, offering customized meal plans and workout tips along with as much support and advice as the member wants.

The Indianapolis-based parent of 14 Blues plans will give its employer and individual customers the option to buy discounted services from FitOrbit, an online weight loss and fitness service founded in 2009 by Jake Steinfeld, who came to fame in the 1980s with his frequently aired Body by Jake infomercials.

Many insurers, including WellPoint and competitors such as Aetna and Cigna, provide health coaching that can include help with smoking cessation, weight loss and improved nutrition. Typical benefits include discounted membership to WeightWatchers or Jenny Craig diet programs as well as discounted gym memberships. Those perks have been expanded in some cases as health plans seek to define themselves as health service companies rather than just insurers.

WellPoint’s announcement comes as many insurers are marketing to individuals rather than just employers. As their focus moves to attracting individual business, it helps health plans entice the healthiest members, said Amal Trivedi, MD, MPH, an internist and assistant professor of community health at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island. He was co-author of a study in the Jan. 12 New England Journal of Medicine showing that Medicare Advantage plans that offer discounted fitness club memberships were selected by a healthier — and lower-cost — subset of beneficiaries (link).

That bias toward what is called “favorable selection” is something for policymakers to keep in mind, Dr. Trivedi said, but it’s also true that as a physician, he likes to see patients adopt healthier eating and exercise habits.

“There is a strong incentive for health plans to attract people who are healthy and therefore less expensive,” he said. “Wellness benefits may help patients eat healthier and exercise, but they also can have important financial implications.”

WellPoint spokeswoman Jill Becher said the insurer is responding to a demand from customers. “We know for both employers and individual consumers, health maintenance and improvement is important to them. As a company, we need to be responsive to that, and this is another tool for us to do that.”

Steinfeld said he envisions FitOrbit trainers working with clients’ physicians — if the client gives the go-ahead — by sharing what the patient is eating, how much he or she is exercising and how much weight is lost. “The end goal is to have your doctor, you and your trainer working as a team.”

WellPoint is working to determine what the service will cost for members and how many will have access to the new benefit. Becher said the insurer expects to offer it in 2013. WellPoint also is a FitOrbit investor, but Becher said the company is not disclosing how much it has invested.

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