(Bloomberg) -- UnitedHealth Group Inc., the largest U.S. health insurer, says it saved $107 million in medical costs over three years by using incentives to persuade its employees to lose weight, make healthier lifestyle choices and get checkups.

In the program’s first year in 2010, 76% of employees reduced their family insurance premiums by meeting certain health goals, according to an article published Monday in the journal Health Affairs. Twenty-seven percent achieved the highest possible savings, cutting their premiums by $1,200, the company says in the report.

The findings show that encouraging employees to become more involved in their health can help reduce medical costs, the UnitedHealth authors say. Such incentive-based programs have been increasing in popularity, due partly to the new health care law. In May, the Obama administration gave businesses more power to increase premiums for workers who fail to meet health goals.

“I think we are seeing greater and greater interest in aligning interests in health care, to offer consumers incentives to actually do what it is that will improve their health,” says Lewis Sandy, UnitedHealth’s senior vice president for clinical advancement.

UnitedHealth’s employees were rewarded for getting weight blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar into healthy ranges. While rewards were given for getting screenings, the company’s program emphasized results, Sandy says.

In the first two years of the program, 82% of the employees of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based insurer covered by the incentive program earned rewards toward reducing their premiums, with 36% achieving the highest level.

“When we first rolled this out you could wonder if people thought it would be challenging or difficult,” Sandy says. “They were things people wanted to do but didn’t have the activation to actually do them.”

Conditions such as obesity and diabetes account for three-quarters of U.S. health spending. UnitedHealth, which employs 133,000 workers, says the program identified 7,200 people who were at high risk for diseases, including diabetes, yet hadn’t been diagnosed

Skeptics of incentive-based wellness programs worry that many of the cost reductions merely shift expenses to the premiums for unhealthy enrollees. While the employer’s bottom line improves, the employee’s burden may increase, says JoAnn Volk of the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. 

“Behavior modification is a tough thing and not all these things employers target are in these people’s control,” Volk says.


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