Monday, October 13, 2008

A Bribe Worth Sweating

“One of the best ways to stay healthy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advised Tuesday, is to get 2 1⁄2 hours of exercise per week. Most Americans already knew that, of course, but getting us to actually do it has always been the challenge. Toward this end, health insurers — who have a financial stake in keeping their customers from getting sick — have developed a novel strategy: bribes. They prefer the word “incentive,” but it’s the same idea: Give customers money (in the form of gift cards to sporting goods shops or rebates on health club memberships, etc.) if they’ll exercise (or at least buy the equipment), stop smoking or lose weight. Pretty good idea — if it works. Because if it does, it will help keep the people out of their doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, saving the insurers — and ultimately the insured — big money. And it should work, at least to some degree. Granted, not everyone who buys exercise equipment or a health-club membership uses it. (As comedian Robert Klein once joked, his exercise bike was the most expensive coat hanger he ever owned.) But many do. And when they do, it makes a difference — helping them lose weight, gain body strength, reduce stress, etc. According to a Gazette story last week, studies show that for every dollar insurers spend on incentives like this, their expenses are reduced by up to $7. With so much bang for the buck, it’s surprising that it took this long for insurers to latch on to this strategy. It’s probably a cost-effective one for employers, too, regardless of whether they subsidize their workers’ health insurance premiums: Healthier workers are more productive, absent less often and get more done while on the job.”

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