Rewards for better living


Would you drop five pounds, or check your blood pressure regularly, in exchange for a store gift card or some frequent flier miles? If the answer is yes, check your employee handbook or health insurer’s website to see if they trade perks for healthful living.

A growing number of employers and insurers are dangling free carrots (or, more likely, free lattes, cash and prizes such as Wii games) in front of employees and members, hoping that a little spending up front could lead to big savings on healthcare costs.

“More and more companies are using incentives to generate the kinds of health behaviors that can help manage the cost of their healthcare plans,” says Kirby Bosley, a senior consultant in the Los Angeles office of consulting firm Watson Wyatt. “We expect the trend to continue this year and beyond.”


Companies vary in what they offer in exchange for your good behavior. American Specialty Health of San Diego, which provides wellness programs for several large insurers, including Aetna and Kaiser Permanente, as well as corporate wellness programs for firms such as Exxon and JCPenney, includes American Express and Jamba Juice gift cards on its rewards list for when members reach certain goals of their program. SunRidge Farms, an organic foods company, gives money just for trying. Employees get $5 for every day they bike to work from home.

Don’t assume your company doesn’t provide rewards just because you don’t remember the offer. “Consumers are more likely to pay attention to penalties for failing to do something, rather than perks for accomplishing a goal,” says Bianca DiJulio, a benefits analyst for health research group Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. “So it’s perfectly likely that a person could have overlooked the reward option when signing up for this year’s benefit.”

To check on these perks, ask the person at your firm who handles employee benefits, or check the patient section of your insurer’s website or call the member number on your insurance card.

And even if your firm doesn’t offer cash for giving up cigarettes or taking a walk every day, there could be some perks you haven’t tried. Many companies and insurance firms offer discounts on gym equipment, weight-loss programs and other health-related expenses.

Anthem Blue Cross, for example, which insures 8.3 million members in Southern California, has discounted offers on its website that include savings of at least $10 on a three-month membership to Weight Watchers’ online program, and preferred pricing with participating fitness centers, acupuncturists and chiropractors.

Larger companies are more likely than smaller ones to offer rewards. But the jury is still out on whether the incentives ultimately push people to change their lifestyles long-term.


“For some programs like smoking cessation,” says Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania, “an incentive program that helps people quit smoking for a period of time such as a year could plausibly be discontinued with most people staying smoke-free. Other behaviors like obesity probably require more ongoing reinforcement.”