The offer of a fitness club membership is helping insurers including UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Humana Inc. draw healthier and less costly patients to their Medicare programs, said researchers reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study found 35.3 percent of new enrollees in a fitness membership benefit plan reported “excellent” or “very good” health, compared with 29.1 percent in the group without the benefit. The number of plans offering the memberships rose to 58 in 2008 from 4 in 2002, the researchers said.
The five largest insurers are looking to expand their roles in offering government-subsidized health plans as the number of Americans covered by them grows under the 2010 U.S. health law. In doing so, the companies may try to “cherry pick” members who are more likely to be healthy using the fitness memberships, said Amal Trivedi, an assistant professor of community health at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of the report released yesterday.
“In general, the government’s goal is to have plans compete on their value to Medicare beneficiaries, and not on their ability to cherry pick the healthiest patients,” Trivedi said in a telephone interview. “They have still found a way to do that in a market that’s very regulated.”
Researchers compared about 5,000 people using 11 Medicare Advantage plans offering fitness-club memberships with those who didn’t receive the benefit. The research by Trivedi and Alicia Cooper was based on patient self-reporting, and the groups weren’t randomly assigned to plans.