Can health insurance companies get members to eat healthier?

Medica is trying a traditional method to influence people's buying choices — saving money with coupons — and giving it a techno spin.

Instead of mailing coupons on nearly 500 products for members to clip, Medica is giving members a preloaded loyalty card and adds 10 to 25 new virtual coupons each week.

No clipping, no forgetting, no fumbling. Packets and cards will be mailed to Medica's 200,000 members in Minnesota on Monday.

John Naylor, senior vice president of Medica's commercial market division, said obesity is a bulge battle that needs to be fought with "baby steps and big steps." He describes the new Healthy Savings program as a medium step.

The hope is that incentives will help members make more healthful choices at the supermarket. By saving 75 cents here and a dollar there on products as varied as Clif protein bars, Musselman's unsweetened applesauce and Gold'n Plump boneless, skinless chicken breasts, members may end up making fewer trips to the doctor's office.

Medica's program is similar to others tried by HealthPartners and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Coupon promotions, along with gift cards, are becoming a new health management tactic that's simple and cost effective.

HealthPartners' Linkwell program, which ended last year, mailed out coupons to nearly 80,000 members, mostly those who had filed claims related to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota's Market Bucks program has focused on low-income residents. It matches up to $5 in purchases made at participating farmers markets through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs.

Does a coupon really have the power to change people's eating habits? Experts say any approach to better nutrition must be multifaceted and an incentive program is just one part of the plan.

The overall redemption rate for paper coupons is only 0.8 percent, but insurers have a slightly better track record. HealthPartners' redemption rate for its Linkwell coupons was between 5 and 10 percent, said Scott Aebischer, senior vice president.

Blue Cross' gift card promos have a 1 percent redemption rate, although the number is expected to increase as more farmers markets accept electronic benefit transfer cards, according to Stacy Housman, communications manager.

High expectations

Medica's program has higher expectations. "We're expecting a redemption rate of 20 to 30 percent," said Chad Kelly, chief marketing officer for Solutran, a Minneapolis-based technology company that's providing the incentive system.

That's significantly higher than the 7.8 percent redemption rate for paperless and mobile coupons, according to NCH Marketing Institute. "When it's a targeted audience that's interested in the topic, that helps increase participation," said Charlie Brown, vice president of marketing at NCH.

Part of the projected success is also the value. "The coupons represent good savings of 50 cents, 75 cents or a dollar per item," Kelly said.

In addition to the coupon redemption card, the insurer is starting an automatic e-mail program and a mobile app website to add interest. Members can use the website to track their savings and check content, including recipes, nutritional information and tips for healthier eating.

The cards can be used at Cub, Rainbow and Lunds/Byerly's stores. Rainbow will also place "healthy savings by Medica" cards near each of the hundreds of items that qualify for the discount program.

The program has no projected end date, according to Medica.

Robert Jeffery, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said that is important. "Most healthy eating behavior goes away when the incentive is taken away."