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New Humana program rewards purchase of healthy groceries

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As one of the country’s largest health-insurance companies, Humana regularly has a say in where its members seek care. Now it wants sway over what groceries they buy.

Humana announced a new partnership with Wal-Mart on Wednesday that will give the more than 1 million members of its wellness program, HumanaVitality, a 5 percent discount on healthy groceries.

The program, which will launch Oct. 15, is meant to steer customers toward healthier food choices and potentially push down health-care costs — while driving people into Wal-Mart stores.

The unusual partnership between a major insurer and major retailer speaks to insurers’ increased push to become involved in areas traditionally outside their purview.

Some see the initiative as a way for Humana to prepare for the Affordable Care Act expansion of the individual insurance market. With millions more Americans buying their own coverage, analysts say there is a new premium on insurers’ maintaining a positive corporate image.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more health-plan partnerships with retail,” said Danielle Robinson, a specialist leader in Deloitte Consulting’s Life and Sciences practice. “Insurers are realizing that they have to play in the retail market, where they don’t have a lot of experience, and are gearing up for that.”

Wellness programs, which offer incentives for Americans to work out in gyms and keep up with their regular checkups, have recently become a mainstay of large employers’ insurance plans. The number of firms offering this benefit nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012, according to Towers-Watson, a human-resources firm.

“A lot of this has to do with the fact health-care costs have grown faster than inflation,” said Mark Olson, a Towers Watson senior consultant. “For a lot of employers, this competes with pension costs to be the biggest benefit budget line. Employers are getting engaged in trying to influence that rate of increase.”

Humana launched HumanaVitality, its wellness unit leading the Wal-Mart initiative, only last July. The new program rewards participants’ healthy behaviors with prizes that include movie tickets and hotel stays.

The partnership looks to put a new twist on existing wellness programs by offering a financial incentive to purchase healthier groceries.

“We’ve seen incentives within the industry before, where there’s some kind of reward for making a healthy behavior choice,” Robinson said. “This isn’t as much a reward as it is making a healthy behavior attainable.”

Both Wal-Mart and Humana describe this as an experiment; it’s the first time a major retailer and a major health company have tried to use financial incentives to change how people eat. They think it will work but don’t know quite yet.

“Our partnership is one of a kind with Humana,” said Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability. “We’ll have a great amount of learning that will come from this.”

The 5 percent discount will go toward any food featuring a new “Great for You” icon, ranging from low-fat milk to produce to low-sodium soups. The products must meet Wal-Mart’s nutrition criteria, which include limits on fat content, sugar and sodium levels.

HumanaVitality members will accrue the discounts on a membership card. The discounts can be used to purchase anything sold in a Wal-Mart store, including unhealthy offerings.

For Wal-Mart, the new venture could serve as a response to growing consumer demand for healthy foods.

“It’s a good intersection between good marketing and, hopefully, better health,” National Retail Federation Vice President Neil Trautwein said. “This certainly has the attention of a good segment of the public. You can see that in the protein bars that pop up to the quick-serve restaurants now adding salads to the menu.”

Research on financial incentives and food purchasing behavior indicates that pricing could have an effect on purchase decisions.

“We don’t have a data-rich environment yet where we can understand what incentives are moving the needle,” Deloitte’s Robinson said. “In terms of being able to measure the impact as a health outcome, the industry is still in early stages of understanding.”

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