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Making the Most of Wellness Programs

More people in Texas and across the country are gaining access to well-being programs that encourage consumers to adopt healthier lifestyles and, ideally, help curb health care costs. According to a recent study, 87 percent of employers are committed to workplace well-being efforts, and nearly 73 percent offer a program. 

These efforts are already producing results: Among people with access to employer-sponsored well-being programs, 57 percent said the initiatives had a positive effect on their health, according to the 2019 UnitedHealthcare Wellness Check Up Survey. Among those, 82 percent said they were motivated to pay more attention to their health; 63 percent said they increased physical activity; 59 percent improved their diet; and 30 percent reported improved sleep.

As people seek to improve their health habits, here are some tips to help consumers become healthier and make the most of their well-being programs: 

Modify Lifestyle Choices: As many as 80 percent or more of the incidence of premature chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, are caused by modifiable lifestyle choices – such as risk factors like smoking or obesity – as opposed to being caused by genetic factors, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With that in mind, people should consider ways to make healthier choices throughout the workday, such as starting or participating in walking meetings, using onsite fitness equipment or taking advantage of biometric screenings, or opting for a stand-up desk. During breaks, choose healthier snacks such as fruits and vegetables, while go-to lunches can include a sandwich with a lean protein – such as turkey or chicken breast – or a visit to the salad bar. 

Earn Available Incentives: Mid-sized and large employers this year will offer an average per-employee well-being incentive of $762, according to a study by the National Business Group on Health. Check with your HR department to determine what well-being incentives might be available to you. For instance, some programs enable people to earn more than $1,000 per year by meeting certain daily walking goals. Other initiatives provide discounts on gym memberships and premium discounts for meeting various health benchmarks, such as a non-nicotine use or normal blood pressure. 

Start to Socialize: Recent research shows that meaningful relationships may be crucial for overall health. By incorporating social components into your well-being or fitness routine, you may be more likely to stick with it. The Wellness Check Up Survey found that over half of respondents said they are more likely to participate in a fitness routine if there is a social component, either in-person or virtually. Potential strategies include participating in walking groups, going to group fitness classes or joining recreational leagues such as basketball or tennis.       

Beat Burnout: Most employees said meditation, or mindfulness, has a positive impact on a person’s overall health, according to the Wellness Check Up Survey. To encourage mindfulness, ask your company to devote office space for “relaxation rooms” to help employees lower their stress levels, or inquire about adding an online or phone-based mindfulness program. For a do-it-yourself “mindfulness kit” to take with you to work, grab health-related items such as caffeine-free tea, a stress ball or a gratitude journal.       

Make the Most of Medicare: People eligible for Medicare – i.e., Americans 65 and older – can also take advantage of well-being programs and incentives. Medicare Advantage plans may offer rewards for actions that help you stay healthy and active, as well as additional wellness programs not available through Original Medicare. These can include fitness memberships, online brain games, nutritional support, and access to vitamins and over-the-counter health items at no additional cost.

Warby Parker Eyewear Now Available to People Enrolled in UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage Plans

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan holders now have access to Warby Parker’s designer prescription eyewear either online at, at nine locations in Texas or at more than 80 Warby Parker stores nationwide.

This marks the first time Warby Parker is accepting Medicare insurance. People enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans that include eyewear benefits through UnitedHealthcare Vision can purchase prescription eyewear from Warby Parker for little or no out-of-pocket cost, often for less than $50.

The expansion builds on an existing network relationship that provides people with employer-sponsored and individual UnitedHealthcare plans access to Warby Parker’s designer eyewear for only a copayment. UnitedHealthcare became the first insurance plan accepted by Warby Parker in 2017.

An Unexpected Way Seniors Can Steer Clear of the Hospital

Efrem Castillo, M.D., is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement

If you’re over 65 and notice that you’re trekking to doctor appointments more frequently than you used to or your medicine cabinet is growing increasingly crowded, you’re not alone.  

Most of us have accepted the reality that our bodies need more care and attention as we age, and so we dutifully do all the things we think we should to help maintain our health and independence for as long as possible: see our doctor regularly, take our medications as prescribed, try to eat a healthy diet and so on. The hope, of course, is that choosing a healthy lifestyle will let us do more of what we love and also avoid the fate so many of us dread: winding up in the hospital hampered with a serious health condition.

But according to new research, steering clear of the hospital could have a lot to do not just with your lifestyle choices but also your Medicare choices. Turns out, if you opted to sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan last fall during the Annual Enrollment Period, your odds of being hospitalized or needing care in the emergency room are significantly lower than if you chose Original Medicare.

Here’s how the study worked: Researchers with health care consulting firm Avalere Health set out to directly compare people enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, which are offered by private health insurance companies, with those who enrolled in Original Medicare.

Because more than half of people enrolled in Medicare have four or more chronic conditions, they were especially interested in understanding how people with chronic conditions fare under each type of Medicare coverage. So they assembled a group of people with at least one of three of the most common chronic conditions in older adults: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. About half the group were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. The other half chose Original Medicare.

The study found that people with chronic conditions enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans had 23 percent fewer inpatient hospitalizations and 33 percent fewer emergency room visits. Not only were they less likely to wind up in the hospital, but they were also more likely to get the preventive care services they needed. Compared to the people in Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage members had higher rates of preventive screenings and tests, including 5 percent higher rates of LDL cholesterol testing and 13 percent higher rates of breast cancer screenings.

The results were particularly promising for people with diabetes. As compared to the study participants with diabetes who chose Original Medicare, those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans had a 52 percent lower rate of complications and a 73 percent lower rate of serious complications such as leg or foot amputation.

What makes the study findings even more impressive is that people who are at higher risk of being in poor health are more likely to choose a Medicare Advantage plan. The study showed that Medicare Advantage plans had higher proportions of minorities, people of low income and people with disabilities as compared to Original Medicare. People who chose Medicare Advantage also had a 57 percent higher rate of serious mental illness and a 16 percent higher rate of substance abuse disorders.

At this point you might be scratching your head, wondering how exactly Medicare Advantage has such an impact on health outcomes for people with chronic conditions. The Avalere Health researchers chalked the findings up, in part, to Medicare Advantage plans’ focus on preventive care, management of chronic conditions, and coordination of care for their plan members. Many Medicare Advantage plans offer extra benefits not available with Original Medicare that are designed to enhance people’s health and quality of life, such as disease management and wellness programs, gym memberships and in-home health care.

In short, Medicare Advantage plans tend to put more emphasis on ensuring their members are receiving appropriate care and support when they’re healthy and their conditions are under control, which in turn appears to lower the risk of needing more intensive care in the hospital down the line.

Intrigued? You’re in luck. Your opportunity to make a change to your Medicare coverage is right around the corner. Let this latest research serve as your motivation to check out all the options available in your area this fall during the Annual Enrollment Period, which begins on Oct. 15. The findings indicate that it would be well worth your time to consider whether a Medicare Advantage plan could be the right choice for your coverage, and your health, in 2019.

Efrem Castillo, M.D., is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. Serving more than 12.3 million people enrolled in Medicare, UnitedHealthcare is the largest business dedicated to the health and well-being needs of seniors and other beneficiaries.

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