New WellPoint plan makes wellness push: Program lets members join fitness clubs-for free

Keywords Health Care / Insurance

Want to join a gym but don’t feel like splurging for the membership? No problem, if your company is one of a handful to offer a new wellness product that lets employees exercise at no charge.

Called InTune, the program from Indianapolis-based insurance giant WellPoint Inc. is loaded with an array of services not unlike existing wellness offerings. Online and in-person coaching, diet advisers and holistic practitioners are among the benefits, for instance.

But it’s the free gym membership that makes InTune a novel approach to engaging employees in their health care. All participants need to do is show a membership card to any club within the Prime Fitness Network, such as a YMCA, Gold’s Gym or Bally’s, to embark upon a healthier lifestyle. Or at least that’s the intent.

Skyrocketing health care costs in company-sponsored health plans are accelerating employer interest in healthier workplaces. WellPoint is offering the program not only to corporate clients but to its own employees as well.

“We’ve always had pockets of wellness activity, but this is the first year that it is closely aligned with our benefit strategy,” said Beena Thomas, WellPoint’s wellness director. “The long-term plan is to really help our associates understand their health habits and sustain those.”

Indeed, a study involving 120,000 patients at the Cleveland Clinic estimated that up to 90 percent of heart attacks could be traced to lifestyle factors, including smoking, overeating and lack of exercise, according to the May 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Further, employees who showed improvement of three or more risk factors over a two-year period saved their companies an average of $146 each per month, according to the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Those types of sobering statistics are driving employers toward preventive maintenance programs, and giving workers a greater financial stake in their health care spending. With consumer-driven choices, for instance, it’s not about purchasing cheaper coverage anymore but about not having to buy it at all.

Eli Lilly and Co. eliminated several managed-care options this year while debuting health savings and reimbursement accounts. The drug manufacturer likewise is one of seven corporations nationally so far to sign on to WellPoint’s InTune product.

Pris Gerde, manager of Lilly’s corporate health services, declined to provide membership numbers but said the company is on target to hit participation goals. The combination of HSAs and wellness programs should help cut costs, she said.

“The overall aspect is to get more value from your health care dollar,” Gerde said. “It’s a blending of consumer-driven health care with a program like InTune.”

WellPoint declined to divulge the additional cost clients pay to offer InTune to their employees. The product will be renamed Healthy Lifestyles next year and be expanded to all Anthem policyholders.

But not everyone is convinced that offering gym membership for free will make much of an impact. Some human resources experts say those who are motivated to exercise probably already belong to a gym, and those who aren’t likely won’t be swayed by cost alone.

If employees do make an effort, the question becomes, how do companies know whether they’re following through? The answer: Membership cards are scanned at the gyms and participation is tracked by the employers.

“The company gets a report showing I was physically in that geographic location,” said Mark Sherman, a senior consultant at locally based Benefit Consultants Inc. “It’s a better way to quantify and measure participation. It’s the company believing that, ‘If we’re paying for wellness, we might as well get the most bang for our buck.'”

To be sure, executives of North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold Inc., a provider of security systems and services, know that 8 percent of 12,700 employees and spouses are logging on to the online services. Even more impressive is the 38 percent who enrolled in the gym membership. An aggressive marketing campaign consisting of e-mails, mailings and open houses helped the company with recruiting efforts.

WellPoint considers participation of at least 35 percent “excellent,” said Kim Kusmits, benefits analyst for Diebold, which has a small sales and service office in Indianapolis.

“If I’m in Florida, I can go to a gym without being in a network,” she said. “That’s a great benefit to us, because we have a lot of people who travel.”

For WellPoint employees, InTune is part of a broader wellness strategy called Choose Better Health. Health club access for them is offered at the workplace through a partnership with the locally based National Institute of Fitness and Sport. It manages the 17 centers housed within WellPoint buildings nationally and will add two more to the stable later this year.

The centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Personal trainers and instructors are available, as well as various programs including fitness assessments and nutrition counseling.

Thomas at WellPoint said employees, especially working mothers, have embraced the program. Those who choose to work out off site are reimbursed each quarter for the cost of the membership.

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