UnitedHealth starts preventive health initiative

ymcaWhile it may be only one insurer -- UnitedHealth Group -- focusing on only one disease -- Type 2 diabetes -- the new program announced by UnitedHealth and the YMCA may be a sign of things to come. Clearly, UnitedHealth understands that spending on disease prevention now can save billions later.

And now that health insurance companies must insure everyone beginning in 2014, regardless of pre-existing conditions, it's time for the companies to step up and work on preventive care.
Under this new strategy, UnitedHealth Group teamed with the YMCA to offer a 16-week program to help people learn to eat better and exercise. This will be followed up with a one-year maintenance program. People who are insured by companies through UnitedHealth in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, will be eligible for the new program, as well as those in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Tucson. Participants will be able to attend the program for free.

This type of preventive strategy, if implemented nationwide, could save the country billions of dollars. Estimates are that diabetes and pre-diabetes add up to a $200 billion U.S. health bill. In addition to the prevention program with the YMCA, UnitedHealth also is partnering with Walgreens pharmacists in the same seven cities to offer instruction to people who already have diabetes so they can better manage their disease.

UnitedHealth plans to spread the word and involve other pharmacies as well as other insurers if the program proves successful. UnitedHealth says one insurer, Medica in Minneapolis, has already signed on for its members in Minnesota.

Hopefully, the prevention fever will catch on. We'd all be better off if insurance companies focused on encouraging preventive programs rather than just treating people after they get sick. Now that it's in the best interest of their long-term profit-making potential, we may finally see a different approach to U.S. medicine.

Think of all the people who need to lose weight in this country. Instead of supporting efforts to change lifestyles and prevent disease caused by being overweight, insurers have pushed programs that would punish overweight people or denied them coverage altogether.

When my friend was diagnosed with pre-diabetes, he was sent to a four-hour course on eating right and never given any other instruction. Lifestyle changes require more than one brief counseling session with a nutritionist. I, too, am from a family with diabetes on both sides, so I've been very cautious about my diet all my life. I went with my friend and incorporated any diet changes I could from that course. I get tested yearly, and so far there are no signs of diabetes. So I'm a strong believer in preventive medicine.

Let's give UnitedHealth a big hand of support and encourage not only UnitedHealth but other health insurance companies to read the writing on the wall: Support for preventive health programs are not only good for your business, but also for your customers. This change in priority in medical care could actually be the best thing that comes out of health care reform.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Social Security and Medicare" and "The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Medicare Part D."
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