Humana will offer some members a 5 percent discount on healthy foods sold at Wal-Mart (Photo: Wal-Mart)

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.

On Wednesday, Humana announced a new partnership with Wal-Mart that will give the more than one 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 drive down health care costs in the process.

“We want to lower the cost of healthy food and have an impact on lowering the cost of health care,” John Agwunobi, who oversees health and wellness for Wal-Mart, told reporters.

The new partnership between a major insurer and major retailer speaks to insurers’ increased push to become involved in areas traditionally outside their purview. Wellness programs have become a mainstay of large employers’ insurance plans, with the number offering financial incentives for workers who participate in health management plans nearly doubling between 2009 and 2012.

Humana only launched HumanaVitality, the wellness unit leading this initiative, last July. The new program rewards participants’ healthy behaviors with prizes that range from movie tickets to hotel stays.

The partnership between Humana and Wal-Mart is, in many ways, a new twist on existing wellness programs. It offers a financial incentive to purchase healthier groceries.

“In a recent survey we did, we saw that 84 percent of our members said a savings program would motivate them to start purchasing healthier foods,” said Humanavitality CEO Joe Woods. “We plan to aggressively communicate about ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from this dynamic program.”

The 5 percent discount will go toward any foods with a new “Great for You” icon, ranging from low-fat milk to produce to low-sodium soups. The products must meet two parts of Wal-Mart’s nurtrition 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, from healthy foods to clothing to unhealthy offerings.

Research on financial incentives and food purchasing behavior indicates that pricing could have an impact on purchase decisions. One recent study on milk prices found that a small difference between the cost of low-fat and full-fat milk had the potential to significantly change what consumers purchased.

The USDA published separate research in 2007, that looked at how low-income families reacted to a 10 percent drop in the price of low-fat milk compared to a full-fat alternative. They found that price change correlated with a 14 percent increase in the consumption of low-fat milk.

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 as well.”