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Indy anti-diabetes experiment takes off

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UnitedHealthcare believes a program tested in the Indianapolis area will help it save money on claims.

The Minnesota-based health insurance giant is rolling out the program to cities across the country this month after trying it out at YMCA of Central Indiana locations and relying on  Indiana University to crunch numbers to ensure the program got results.

UnitedHealthcare, which claims the second-largest share of the market in central Indiana, pays the YMCA directly if it successfully helps patients lose weight; Walgreens also is paid for its pharmacists' spending time reviewing patient prescriptions and compliance.

In the pilot, UnitedHealthcare paid for patients determined to be pre-diabetic to join a 16-week program at the YMCA. The YMCA taught the participants how to count calories and fat grams, to set daily ceilings on each, and to record everything they eat to make sure they don’t exceed their daily limits.

Beyond that, the YMCA let participants eat whatever they want. But they also got them to use the exercise equipment at YMCA facilities and coached them on how to handle stress without resorting to eating and how to maintain their diet discipline even when schedules and social situations work against it.

“We’ve learned skills that I’m going to use for the rest of my life,” said Peggy Brown, 58, who with her husband Robert is in the 15th week of her program at the YMCA in Greenwood. He has lost 23 pounds and she has lost 29 pounds, which has helped drop their blood sugar levels so they are no longer “pre-diabetic.”

The Browns and others like them helped the YMCA participants lose, on average, 6 percent of their body weight after six months, compared with only 2 percent lost by similar patients trying other diet and exercise programs, according to IU’s research.

Those proven results make Dan Krajnovich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare’s Indiana subsidiary, confident that employers will want to join the program. He said it would certainly improve UnitedHealthcare’s competitiveness among employers in Indiana.

“No question about it,” he said. “We’re actually offering this program to non-UnitedHealthcare customers as well,” which means employers can pay to have their employees participate, even if they do not choose UnitedHealthcare to provide their health benefits.

Krajnovich said the key difference about this program, compared with previous wellness efforts, is the way UnitedHealthcare has structured its payments to the YMCA. The organization receives no money unless a patient completes the program. It can then receive extra money if a patient loses at least 6 percent of his or her weight and another bonus on top of that if a patient loses 9 percent of his or her weight.

Peggy Brown and her husband had lost 7 percent of their body weight by week 11 of their program and have lost even more since.

“I don’t want to go back,” she said. “I’ve got energy. I’m able to keep up with my grandkids. We can do things, and can go places. And we’re having fun.”

In addition to Indianapolis, UnitedHealthcare, YMCA and Walgreens are launching their anti-diabetes program in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, and Dayton, Ohio.

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