Monday, April 29, 2013

Moon Walk Challenge

As a healthcare executive, there are certainly many days when it feels as though the health problems facing our nation, from obesity to diabetes, are just too big to solve.

But then I hear that our programs that address health issues at the community level really are working, and I’m reminded that these small changes are what add up to big progress.

UnitedHealthcare awards micro – grants to community based organizations for programs that target childhood obesity as part of our childhood obesity initiative titled HEROES. As I am every year, I was impressed to see the creativity of the 2013 grant awardees programs, and couldn’t wait to see how they were implemented. One program that really caught my eye was in the Pittsburgh area, the Allegheny Valley YMCA’s Moon Walk Challenge.

The program tied together space education and physical activity. Children of all ages involved in the Y’s before and after school programs participated in fun activities about space, and ran or walked together every day before or after school, with the goal of walking the equivalent of the moon’s diameter over the course of the project, a distance of 2,160 miles.

When we checked in with the Allegheny Valley YMCA, they said that things didn’t go quite as planned. Instead of walking the diameter of the moon, students wanted to challenge themselves even further by setting the new goal to the circumference of the moon, an approximate distance of 6,784 miles.

Children at Allegheny Valley YMCA, logging their miles.

The YMCA used their grant money to purchase pedometers for the kids so they could keep track of how much they moved every day. Kids were excited to not only use them in their group walks, but keep track of their steps at baseball practice, walking to the bus stop, or even around their home.

Hearing kids say “let’s challenge ourselves to move even more!” is music to my ears, and I think we can safely say that it’s an indicator of the program’s success. Indeed, the YMCA reported that many of the kids saw their fitness levels improve significantly.

The Allegheny Valley YMCA’s Moon Walk Challenge is just one example of how organizations across the country have put HEROES grants to good use to really make a difference in kids’ education and attitudes about health and physical activity. Congratulations to all of our HEROES grant winners, and I hope to keep hearing more stories about the success of these programs!

E.J. Heckert, vice president, UnitedHealthcare, Western Pennsylvania and UnitedHealthcare volunteers presented the HEROES grant check to Allegheny Valley YMCA program coordinators

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A way to give weight loss benefits to overweight adults

A new study about losing weight by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reminds me of the old blues song “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”  The sad part, of course, is that people are dying early from diseases associated with being obese and overweight.

The study found that the overwhelming number of overweight adults believe that specific weight-loss benefits offered by health plans could help them lose weight, but few are willing to pay extra for them.

The numbers are very revealing: More than 80% of the people surveyed said they thought it was a good idea for health insurance to cover weight loss expenses, such as fitness center membership, financial incentives, commercial weight-loss programs and health coaching. But two-thirds of the overweight people surveyed would not pay any additional premium for the benefit.  About 21% would pay from $50-99 per year and only about 13% would pay more than $100 for a weight-loss benefit.

But what about the one third willing to pay a little extra to have the help they need to get down to a healthy weight?

Historically, these people might be out of luck, as employers could only offer one or at the most a few health plans to employees.  The concept of defined benefits has changed all that.

With a defined benefit health care benefit, the employer gives employees a defined amount for the health benefit and a menu of many health care plans from which to choose.  Depending on the plan selected, the employee will pay more or less of a premium. Many health insurers are going to the defined benefit model, because it gives employees more choice without raising the cost to employer.  For example, UnitedHealthcare calls its defined benefit package Multi-Choice and enables employees to select from up to 30 different plans.

In a defined benefit world, it’s easy for people to address the specific health needs of their family. Those one-third of overweight adults who would be willing to pay a little bit more in annual premium so they can get weight loss support through the health insurance can select a plan that includes weight loss features. Unlike in the past, the defined benefit approach essentially enables employees to customize the health plan they receive.

Let’s do some thinking out loud. If one-third of the two-thirds of all adults who are overweight took a plan that helped them lose the excess baggage, that would mean 22% of all American adults would be better positioned to lose the weight they need to lose.  Not only would we be healthier as a nation, but our health care costs would go down. A recent study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that by 2030 we will spend an additional $550 billion on health care because of obesity. Imagine what we could do with the money as individuals and a nation if we cut 20% of that more than half a trillion dollars! 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Don’t forget April 15th deadline for HSA contributions

Tick tock. Tick tock.

This time of year you can almost hear the clock ticking as we rush to beat the April 15th deadline for filing income taxes.

But in the hustle to add, subtract, multiply and divide, it’s easy to forget a money-saving deadline that comes the same day as tax day. April 15th is also the very last day to make a contribution into a health savings account (HSA).

An HSA is a medical savings account available to consumers enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. The funds contributed to an HSA are not subject to federal income tax, nor are any accumulated income earned in an HSA. Consumers can pay for insurance premiums, deductibles, co-pays, prescription drugs and other eligible medical costs from the HSA throughout the year and can then roll over unused amounts into future years, potentially creating a kind of medical expense nest egg over time.

And according to the experts, you absolutely should save money for future medical needs. A recent study by Fidelity Benefits Consulting estimates that a 65-year-old couple who retired in 2012 will need $240,000 just to cover their medical costs in retirement.

Having an HSA tends to make people pay more attention not just to what they are paying for healthcare, but also to the care they receive. A study by UnitedHealthcare shows that five percent more of HSA members sought preventive care than a peer group of traditional PPO members. HSA members were 16-percent more likely to get cervical or prostate cancer screenings and those with heart conditions were 20-to 40- percent more likely to get important tests.

A UnitedHealthcare study also found that both physician groups and employees saved money with HSAs. The cost per consumer decreased three percent to five percent in the HSA plan during a three-year period. Plan participants had 22 percent fewer hospital admissions and 14-percent fewer emergency room visits.

HSAs are becoming more popular as more employers and individuals learn about the benefits. The Insurance industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans reported in 2012 that more than 13.5 million Americans with individual or employer group coverage had an HSA-qualified plan, an increase of 18 percent from 2011.

The federal government gives employees and employers (who are allowed to add funds to the HSAs of employees) until April 15th of the year to add funds to an HSA account for the prior year. That means that if you have an HSA and some extra funds, you can cut your taxes while adding to your nest egg for future medical care. The HSA limits for 2012 are $3,100 for an individual and $6,250 for a family. HSA holders 55 and older can contribute and deduct an additional $1,000.

So what are you waiting for? If you have an HSA, contribute as much as you can up to the maximum before April 15th. And if you don’t have an HSA and you want to learn more about them, visit