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November 3, 2014

New Harvard Pilgrim wellness program aims to boost worker health, cut employer costs

Vin Capozzi, SVP of sales and marketing, Harvard Pilgrim
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care's new Eat Right Rewards program app allows consumers to see the nutritional value of grocery store items.

Joan Fallon didn't use to think much about the nutritional value of her blueberry muffin mix.

“I didn't read the labels to compare artificial ingredients and nutritional value,” she said. But that's changed since April, when Fallon, the public relations director for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC), joined a pilot program her employer launched — the Eat Right Rewards program — that aims to educate employees about the health value of their grocery lists.

The program, which was officially made available Oct. 1 to Harvard Pilgrim's employer customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, rates more than 100,000 food items based on a sophisticated grading scale to help consumers make more informed — and healthier — choices.

Harvard Pilgrim's hope is that the initiative will not only shrink waistlines, but employer healthcare spending as well.

“One of the most important factors in health is what you eat,” said Vin Capozzi, HPHC's senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We want to provide a tool that takes the guess work out of shopping nutritionally and changes behaviors.”

And those changes are sorely needed, according to Capozzi. “We are facing an obesity crisis in this country,” he said. “And that not only affects health, but healthcare costs.”

According to a 2012 report from the Journal of Health Economics, obesity — and related health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure — adds more than $190 billion to the nation's annual healthcare costs.

In Connecticut, obesity-related problems in adults alone account for more than $860 million in healthcare expenditures.

Those are staggering figures that Harvard Pilgrim would like to reign in and they've found a number of willing partners to help, including grocers.

Eat Right Rewards is now available at a number of New England's largest supermarket chains — including Shaw's, Star Market, and Hannaford. Capozzi sees the mutual benefit that programs like Eat Right Rewards provide for both shoppers and grocers.

“The highest [profit] margin items [for a grocer] are also the healthiest items for consumers,” he said.

But to help the program gain traction with healthcare consumers, Capozzi said Harvard Pilgrim needs employers to promote it and incentivize participation.

He points to Harvard Pilgrim's own six-month pilot as an example.

“We give $10 to everyone who enrolls and makes at least one shopping trip a month using their [program] card,” Capozzi said, noting that nearly one-third of HPHC's employees joined in.

Employees can earn an additional $10 if they post monthly shopping cart scores of 60 or higher.

Rewards are deposited into employees' savings or PayPal account.

The scoring system was researched and developed by Newton, Mass.-based Nutrisavings, an employee wellness vendor that has given Harvard Pilgrim exclusive rights to its data.

“A sugared cereal might score a 12,” Capozzi explained, “and an apple is 100.”

The collective score, which is tracked on an Eat Right Rewards card that users swipe at check out, is tracked by Nutrisavings and emailed a few days later to the consumer.

Fallon said her score has helped modify her buying behaviors.

“If you have a lower scoring item that might be high in sodium, for instance,” Fallon said, “the report suggests healthier — and higher scoring — alternatives; it's a very sophisticated system.”

While Capozzi acknowledges that a program like Eat Right Rewards—where people's purchases are tracked by a third party—may raise privacy concerns, he is quick to point out that the program is strictly voluntary.

“Employers are only provided an aggregate score,” he said. “They don't see the actual grocery items employees purchase.”

Capozzi said the program's mobile app will appeal strongly to younger, tech-savvy workers who are drawn to app-based coupons and can navigate a smartphone and grocery aisle simultaneously.

And, of course, he hopes the uniqueness of a food-based incentive program will provide a competitive advantage for Harvard Pilgrim's sales and retention.

Capozzi said he expects nearly one-third of Harvard Pilgrim's employer plans to implement the program; a similar percentage of employees will participate, he predicts.

“We hope to see fewer claims and better overall health from those in the program,” he said. 

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