Health reform bears fruit at your local YMCA

Other insurers will be watching the program closely to see how it impacts United's bottom line, and its reputation.

United Health says it is teaming with Walgreen's and local YMCA groups to fight diabetes.

Here is how it works.

  1. UnitedHealth identifies people in its database at risk for diabetes, inviting them to a free 16-week exercise class at the Y.
  2. UnitedHealth will pay Walgreens to help people who already have diabetes manage their condition.
  3. UnitedHealth gives the YMCA $300 for each person who finishes its program, and $500 for each person who meets the goal of dropping their weight by 5%.

The program is starting in seven cities -- Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, Indianapolis, Ind., Minneapolis, Minn., Phoenix and Tucson Ariz. -- but could be extended if it pays for itself, as UnitedHealth expects it will.

There are a number of health IT angles here. First, participation is based on United's database. Second, it's profitable thanks to Walgreen's automation. Third it builds on the YMCA's existing wellness programs, like FitLinxx, and increases its Web presence through learning materials.

The program is based on one developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which Indiana University was already planning on implementing in Indianapolis with the YMCA there. The CDC estimates that a 5% weight reduction for those at risk for Type II diabetes can drop the risk of acquiring the disease by 58%.

Chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease represent 75% of the nation's health care costs, according to the CDC, and account for 70% of U.S. deaths.

Everybody gets to be a winner here:

  • UnitedHealth looks like a bunch of good guys and reduces its costs, since diabetes represents a big hunk of the nation's health care bill.
  • Walgreen's gets access to valuable customers, and enough cash to pay back its costs.
  • The YMCA fulfills its mission, and also gains access to people who might then become members.
  • Many people at risk for diabetes have a chance to delay or prevent its onset. Diabetes is no fun.

Since insurers are forced to cover everyone under health reform, companies like UnitedHealth now have a financial incentive to launch wellness programs of this type. Its costs are kept at a minimum by the participation of Walgreen's, which is highly automated, and the YMCA connection is a bonus.

Everyone could end up making money, especially the Y, which is fighting to attract new customers as younger people go to cheaper health clubs and middle-income people find their budgets stretched. Other insurers will be watching the program closely to see how it impacts United's bottom line, and its reputation. (Full disclosure. I'm a member of my local YMCA.)

This looks like the start of a trend.