WEDNESDAY, Jan. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Paying the gym-membership
fees of seniors joining private Medicare supplemental insurance
plans -- which by law cannot deny coverage based on illness --
attracts healthier adults, potentially saving the U.S. insurer
money, a new study suggests.
Analyzing 22 Medicare Advantage plans, including half that added
fitness club memberships and half that didn't, Brown University
researchers found that plans with fitness benefits had 6 percent
more seniors who reported being in excellent or very good health.
The number of new enrollees in such plans reporting activity
limitations was 10.4 percent lower, and those reporting difficulty
walking was 8.1 percent lower than in plans not offering gym
"Insurance companies are at risk for paying for all covered services, so there's a strong financial incentive to enroll people who are healthy rather than those who are sick," said study co-author Dr. Amal Trivedi, an assistant professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown.
"Obviously, covering gym memberships costs money, so there's a calculus between [that] versus attracting healthier enrollees," Trivedi added. "What this suggests is that offering gym memberships is an attractive business proposition."
The study is published Jan. 12 in the
New England Journal of Medicine.
Medicare is the U.S. government's health insurance program for
people 65 and older. Medicare Advantage plans, which are
administered by private insurers approved by Medicare, offer
coverage for extra services such as vision, hearing, dental and/or
prescription drugs. The plans must accept all applicants, but
individual premiums are risk-adjusted based on pre-existing medical
conditions. Sicker applicants, therefore, pay higher premiums than
Coverage of fitness clubs jumped significantly in the past
decade. Looking at 101 Medicare Advantage plans from 2002 to 2008,
the researchers found that the number offering gym memberships
jumped from 14 to 58.
"That's a fourfold rise, which I suspect is even higher now," said Trivedi, noting that more than 300 total Medicare Advantage plans are currently available. "I think the magnitude of the effect was surprising to us, and this is a topic that was not studied before."
Trivedi, who also practices at the VA Medical Center in
Providence, R.I., and co-author Alicia Cooper also obtained data
from the Medicare Health Outcomes Survey -- which collects
information such as health, social and demographic status from a
random sample of beneficiaries. The sample included nearly 5,000
Medicare Advantage beneficiaries ages 65 and older in 11 plans that
added fitness-membership benefits in 2004 or 2005 along with 11
plans that did not.
Dr. Tamara Kuittinen, director of medical education in the
department of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York
City, said some private insurance plans covering all ages also
offer gym memberships, which she compared to a "carrot on a stick
to living healthily."
"Aging is a complicated process, but I think [this practice is] a positive incentive for those who, say, need to join a gym or talk to their doctor about staying healthy," she said. "Studies show if you're active in your senior years, you live longer. It improves mental health as well as physical health."
Learn more about
Medicare Advantage plans.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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