Seniors steamed over cuts to SilverSneakers fitness program

Senior
Seniors are upset UnitedHealth is ending its SilverSneakers fitness program. (Getty/Zinkevych)

It’s one of the “top topics” that seniors have been raising over the past few months when they call Ohio’s Senior Health Insurance Information Program, said Chris Reeg, the OSHIIP program director.

Michael Chanak Jr., 69, of Wadsworth, Ohio, had problems getting through to UnitedHealthcare’s customer relations department several times when he called with questions—a common complaint. “The way this is being implemented is a train wreck,” said Chanak, who has a UnitedHealthcare Medicare supplemental policy and spends an hour every day exercising at his gym.

People are “extremely upset,” wrote Margaret Lee of Arroyo Grande, Califorrnia, in an email. “That’s about the only topic of conversation at my water exercise class!”

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AARP has also become a target of anger because it endorses UnitedHealthcare’s Medigap and Medicare Advantage insurance policies—an arrangement that yields substantial royalties for the organization.

In an email, Mark Bagley, a spokesman for the organization, said, “UHC [UnitedHealthcare], not AARP, operates these plans and determines the benefits.”

“I will be dropping my AARP membership when it is time to renew,” wrote Shelley Holbrook, 67, of Yorba Linda, California, a UnitedHealthcare Medigap policyholder, in an email exchange about the loss of SilverSneakers. “I am a Parkinson’s patient who has been prescribed this type of exercise program,” she explained. “This program is under the guidance of certified instructors that make sure the exercise routines are performed correctly. … An ordinary gym membership provides no instruction on how to use the equipment safely for seniors.”

“A health coach is not what I need,” Holbrook continued. “I have used the health coaches before, and have found them to be totally worthless.”

For policyholders like Holbrook, the situation is complicated by another factor: Federal laws don’t ensure that seniors can switch Medicare supplemental insurance plans without undergoing new medical evaluations after an initial “guarantee issue” period. (This period occurs six months following a person’s enrollment in Medicare. Changes are allowed under a few specific circumstances and by laws in a few states.)

If seniors can meet medical standards, they’ll find SilverSneakers available from other insurance operators. In 2019, Tivity Health is offering the program through more than 65 health plans covering more than 15 million older adults and introducing a new digital platform that emphasizes its social benefits: SilverSneakers Connect.

“There are people we’ve learned who are alone but don’t want to go to the gym,” and the new platform can help them connect with each other as well as activities in their communities, said Donato Tramuto, Tivity Health’s CEO. Recent research suggests that SilverSneakers may help reduce isolation and loneliness in seniors who go to classes and form new relationships, he noted.

RELATED: UnitedHealth, AARP hit with another lawsuit over co-branded Medigap plans

Whether UnitedHealthcare’s health plans will be less appealing because of the shift away from SilverSneakers is yet to be determined. Several years ago, Humana, another giant insurer, also began reducing the number of plans that offered SilverSneakers, but it faced a backlash from members and sales representatives. “The membership perceives [SilverSneakers] as a valuable benefit despite the fact that not everyone uses it,” said George Renaudin, Humana’s senior vice president of Medicare.

Humana subsequently reversed course and is now making SilverSneakers broadly available to about 3.5 million Medicare Advantage and Medigap policyholders.

Ray Liss, who retired seven years ago, just changed over from UnitedHealthcare to a Humana Medicare supplemental policy with his wife. The loss of SilverSneakers precipitated the switch, which has an unexpected benefit: The couple will save almost $60 a month next year on their new policy.

In an email, Liss, who declined to say where he lives, was philosophical about the value of exploring his options, writing, “I was pretty mad at the time, but it worked out for the best.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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