The boss wants you to get fit — and might start offering cash and a gizmo to help.
UnitedHealthcare is announcing Tuesday a new program to outfit workers with fitness tracking devices, so they have a shot at earning up to $1,460 over the course of a year for meeting certain fitness goals.
Based in Minnetonka, the nation's largest health insurer is collaborating with San Diego-based Qualcomm to provide devices to certain employer health plans that purchase coverage from United.
The agreement comes as more people are wearing fitness trackers, and more employers are interested in making the devices part of their health plans. In a survey last year, the consulting firm Mercer found that about one-fourth of large employers encouraged employees to track physical activity with a wearable device.
"We know from the science there is a health care value for exercise — pretty straightforward," said Steve Beecy, a vice president with UnitedHealthcare.
"They will be given a tracker as part of their insurance premium," Beecy added. "Its unique algorithm tracks the frequency of the walk, the intensity and the tenacity."
Qualcomm makes chips and technology used in smartphones and tablets. Company officials are joining UnitedHealthcare executives to announce the partnership Tuesday during a trade show on health information technology in Las Vegas.
Called UnitedHealthcare Motion, the program is currently available to companies with between 101 and 300 employees in about a dozen states — Minnesota is not one of them. More states will be added this year. It's also been available in the past year to certain UnitedHealthcare customers that employ workers in multiple states.
An employee and the employee's spouse can each earn up to $4 per day for hitting three distinct targets.
If they take 300 steps within 5 minutes, six times per day, the health plan enrollee earns $1.50. The enrollee earns another $1.25 for walking 3,000 steps within a 30-minute period. Finally, walking a total of 10,000 steps in a day brings another $1.25.
"The frequency is probably the most important," Beecy said of the first target, "because it's all about being active throughout the day."
Funds are deposited in the worker's health reimbursement account, which workers can use for general health care expenses before tapping traditional health care coverage. Future versions will be linked with a health savings account, which also can be used for medical costs.
Qualcomm doesn't make the fitness devices, which enrollees can wear on the wrist or attach to clothing. Instead, it provides the "medical-grade connectivity" that allows information from sensors in the devices to be transmitted while providing for privacy and security, said Dr. James Mault, vice president and chief medical officer of Qualcomm Life, the healthcare subsidiary of Qualcomm.
"This device will coach you throughout the day," Mault said. "It talks to the app once an hour, and exchanges the data, and then the app will say: Here's what you need to do to earn the rest of your bonus."
The technology is designed to prevent gaming the system — things like simulating steps in a rocking chair, or attaching the monitor to a dog.
"If you took the device off … gave it to your 10-year-old kid and told them to run around the house 100 times, the system can actually detect the difference," Mault said.
For Qualcomm, the agreement with UnitedHealthcare is just the latest in a series of ventures into health care. Officials from both companies spoke of the potential for additional collaboration in the future, but did not release financial terms for any such agreements.
There's growing interest in wearable fitness monitors among both workers and employer health plans, said Rose Stanley, senior practice manager for WorldatWork, a nonprofit that tracks trends in human resources.
The nonprofit group in 2013 published survey results showing that only 17 percent of companies were using mobile technology for wellness, lifestyle tracking or improvement. But at the time, more than 60 percent said they might adopt the technology in the next three years.
Employees often are wary at first about such wellness programs, Stanley said, because they fear "a big brother thing." But as time goes by, employees are becoming more comfortable with the programs, she said, including fitness trackers.
"People are starting to become a little bit more comfortable utilizing it," Stanley said.