UnitedHealth is the Latest Industry Player to Embrace Wearables

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For most people, health insurance is something they’d rather not think about. For better or worse, UnitedHealth wants to always be on your mind — and wrist.

The health insurance giant is revamping its UnitedHealthcare Rewards program to offer financial incentives for customers who engage in healthy behaviors — as tracked by wearable devices like a Fitbit, an Apple Watch, or a Garmin.

An Apple Watch a Day…

The Affordable Care Act has precluded health insurance providers from charging extra or denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions for over a decade now. That’s forced insurers to get creative as they face the steadily increasing cost of care in the US; total healthcare spending hit nearly $13,000 per person in 2021 or $4.3 trillion overall, roughly the equivalent of one-fifth the national GDP, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

One solution they’ve stumbled onto: If health problems can’t be penalized, why not incentivize healthy habits? It’s a strategy Vitality Health, a subsidiary of global insurance provider Discovery, has created an entire business out of. Not that it doesn’t trust you or anything, but Vitality uses wearables and the internet of things to track everything from blood pressure to cholesterol levels, creating a points reward system that incentivizes healthy behavior. Now, UnitedHealth, which has 26 million US clients, is aiming to launch a similar program:

  • Rewards will be granted via cash gift cards or health savings account funds and can be earned by taking a minimum of 5,000 steps and completing 15 minutes of exercise per day. Members can earn up to $1,000 annually.
  • The program will first be available to UnitedHealth’s 3 million patients on fully-insured plans, before being rolled out to self-insured plan members sometime next year.

“The goal of the program is really to motivate our members to take charge of their health and stay engaged in these activities and ultimately improve their quality of life,” Samantha Baker, chief consumer officer of UH’s commercial business, told Axios.

Foul Play: There’s a blurry line between incentivizing good behavior and disincentivizing bad behavior, critics claim. And, as it stands, companies could likely do so if they please. “Insurance companies are now using [health] data for rewards programs, but there are no regulations stopping them from doing the opposite,” the American Medical Association warns. While most people would love to have a doctor in the family, having a Big Brother as your health insurer isn’t exactly the same.