UnitedHealthcare adds Apple Watch to Motion program with option to 'walk it off'

Beginning this month, UnitedHealthcare members in some employer-sponsored plans will be able to receive a new Apple Watch and pay the insurer back simply by walking. 

UnitedHealthcare said it is integrating Apple Watches into its existing wellness program called Motion that rewards members for meeting certain walking goals. Starting this month, the insurance giant is expanding its wearable offerings to include the Apple Watch Series 3—the newest Apple Watch on the market. 

Members that already own any Apple Watch model will be allowed to connect into the program and track their walking goals associated with financial rewards. Those that don't have the Apple Watch can order the device—paying for tax and shipping upfront—and then walk off the purchase price over the course of six months. 

The announcement, planned for Thursday, was first reported by CNBC. 

The new additions to the program, which was launched in 2016 with a storefront of wearable devices, will give members more choice regarding the type of device they want to use and generate broader participation in the program, according to Paul Sterling, vice president of emerging products for UnitedHealthcare. Currently, more than 200,000 members are participating in the program. 

"We hope it has a dramatic impact," he said. "When you remove barriers to participation and make it more appealing, we have high expectations that we'll see higher interest and engagement."

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The program allows members to earn up to $1,100 each year in $1-, $2-, or $3-per-day increments deposited into an HSA account. Participants are rewarded based not just on the number of steps they complete each day but also a structured program around "frequency, intensity and tenacity" that rewards members for meeting goals like 3,000 steps within 30 minutes.

Internal data shows participants walk nearly 12,000 steps per day on average and have earned $38 billion in rewards since the program launched. 

Internal data from UnitedHealthcare has shown impressive results, even as broader industry research has called into question the efficacy of wellness programs. Between 45% and 65% of members stay in the programs after six months depending on the type of plan they are in, according to Sterling. Members with a chronic condition are 20% more likely to participate in the program, and those with diabetes specifically are 40% more likely.

Those that participate in the program have saved an average of $222 per year in medical costs, most of which was generated from outpatient care, according to data provided by UnitedHealthcare. 

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Consumer data is also fed to UnitedHealth's Rally platform, which the insurer has been building over the past several years to incorporate 20 million members. Recently, the company announced it plans to use Rally to launch an individual health record next year to its entire membership. 

Sterling admits that a big part of the driver is the tiered financial incentives but says the program's unique structure and flexibility keep people engaged.

"That’s what drives the benefits," he said. "You need a program and experience that people want to participate in and can participate in for long periods of time."