Employer incentives mean healthy profits for Duluth-area fitness clubs
SMDC Health System continually looks for ways to help its 7,000 employees improve their health. As an employer, the health system sees the benefit of exercise in reducing stress, managing chronic diseases, enhancing productivity and reducing heal...
SMDC Health System continually looks for ways to help its 7,000 employees improve their health.
As an employer, the health system sees the benefit of exercise in reducing stress, managing chronic diseases, enhancing productivity and reducing health-care costs, said Kim Carlin, benefits manager in SMDC human resources.
So starting Jan. 1, the SMDC began offering a $20-a-month discount on fitness club memberships to its employees through Medica, the company that administers its health insurance plan. To take advantage of the discount, the employee, spouse or dependent children 18 and older must work out at an approved fitness center at least eight times a month.
Because the program is so new, Carlin said the number of employees who have taken advantage of the discount isn't yet available. "Anecdotally, I can tell you that people are very excited about it," she said.
"I believe it is a huge positive for many people," said Jinell Abernethy, owner of Anytime Fitness. "It's an incentive."
SMDC is one of many area employers offering the discounts through their health insurance carriers, and fitness clubs love it.
It's already a busy time of year, with the surge in memberships that always happens in the cold-weather months, but this year it's even bigger at the Duluth Clinic Fitness and Therapy Center, manager John Haugrud said. Although membership has grown steadily for a decade, the pace of growth has doubled since November, he said. Insurance incentives, he said, were a big driver.
The same is true at other fitness facilities. The first week of January, the Duluth YMCA enrolled 200 members, said Gina Miller, membership and marketing director. "I would have to say a lot of that is the insurance," she said. The Duluth Y was the first in the area to participate with Medica's incentive plan in July 2005, said Medica spokesman Greg Bury.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, which provides a similar incentive, surveyed its own employees and found that 43 percent of the respondents made use of the discount program or joined a health club because of the discount. "A lot of plans are really trying to promote prevention -- not just going to your doctor for screenings," said Dave Haerle, the insurer's product manager.
Medica has a similar philosophy. "It's an investment in their health," Bury said.
A number of other insurers offer discounts as well. The rules vary, but the program usually involves a $20 rebate or discount if the insured person visits a fitness center eight or 12 times a month.
In the Duluth-Superior area, fitness club memberships generally range from $25 to $50, so it's a substantial portion of the monthly membership dues, Haugrud pointed out.
Both Blue Cross and Medica recently conducted studies confirming that people who work out "appear to have better health," as the Blue Cross study said.
Medica said average monthly claim costs decreased 33.6 percent for people who exercised at least eight days a month at a fitness center in Minneapolis. Blue Cross found a 41 percent drop in hospital admissions for people who exercised at least eight times a month for at least nine months a year at fitness centers. The more workouts, the less they needed health care.
However, Blue Cross was careful to say that no cause-and-effect relationship has been documented between regular exercise and better health.
The Blue Cross study also noted that people are more likely to work out if they live close to their fitness center. Dave Emerson, manager of the Duluth Clinic Fitness and Therapy Center satellites in Proctor and Esko, said those fitness centers were established just for that reason.
He also noted that because single membership at those facilities is less than $22 per month, those who have the program on their insurance plan and exercise the specified number of times can belong by spending less than $2 a month.
Most of the state's 600 fitness centers participate in the insurance incentives, Haerle said, but Minnesota is the only state in which Blue Cross has the incentive. Even as local fitness centers are growing, national membership growth has slowed, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
It's becoming increasingly important for Minnesota fitness centers to take part in the insurers' incentive programs, Haerle said. "It's really a competitive disadvantage not to participate," he said.