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Wed, Oct. 16

Silver Sneakers Medicare program to be replaced; not everyone is a fan

David and Marcie Moody are incredulous that their Medicare supplemental insurance premium with UnitedHealthcare is going up $30 a month but they are losing a key benefit, enrollment in the national SilverSneakers program.

SilverSneakers is a national fitness program for Medicare-eligible seniors that provides free memberships at various fitness facilities.

For the past six years, the Moodys have relied on the SilverSneaker program to cover their membership at the Prescott YMCA. On Dec. 14, UnitedHealthcare provided official notification that this particular benefit as of the New Year was to be reduced by half.

“Raise our rates, and then cut what they give us,” David Moody said of the switch that has prompted him and his wife and other members near and far to question the impact.

UnitedHealthcare first notified its Medicare supplemental plan customers of the move away from SilverSneakers in September. That was then followed up with the December letter. Moody said he doesn’t recall the earlier letter.

UnitedHealthcare officials say that the switch now offers its 168,000 Arizona supplemental plan customers a self-created alternative wellness program — it does not have a specific name — that will provide 50 percent discounts on gym memberships at certain facilities.

For its 187,000 Arizona Medicare Advantage plan members, UnitedHealthcare is offering a separate program called Renew Active that offers free gym memberships as part of that health insurance package.

UnitedHealthcare will continue the SilverSneakers program in Arizona for those who were enrolled in a group plan through a former employer, officials said this week.

Prescott YMCA Membership Director Ryan Harlow admits the change has created some concern and confusion among a number of their members. To accommodate the switch, Harlow said the Y is honoring a couple new supplement plans, one offered through AARP that is called “Be Well” and UnitedHealthcare’s “Renewed Active” for those enrolled in one of its Medicare Advantage plans. For those who still have SilverSneakers, Harlow said that program will continue to be honored.

Harlow was clear the Y does not want to see its active seniors suddenly halt their exercise programs because of any of these changes. The Y offers financial scholarships to those in need, he affirmed.

Prescott seniors Jim and Janet Howard are UnitedHealthcare customers who for years have relied on their SilverSneakers benefit to cover their Y membership. This change does not halt their belief in the need to stay in shape. Their hope is one of the alternative options suits them. If not, Howard said they might be forced to adjust their annual donation to cover the membership cost.

National Public Radio published a report in early December stating thousands of seniors across the country would be impacted by the UnitedHealthcare change. Some opted to seek out new Medicare providers who will continue offering free gym memberships; others are taking a wait-and-see attitude, NPR’s story stated.

In much of Arizona, UnitedHealthcare is one of only two Medicare supplemental and Advantage plan providers, and so such options are limited.

UnitedHealthcare officials claim this move is not an attempt to deemphasize the value of exercise and fitness in older adults. Rather they claim that what they want to do is give customers more options that are better tailored to the individual client, including fitness instruction, themed exercise classes and various types of equipment and atmosphere.

One local fitness official said he ponders whether health insurance companies today have forgotten the sage advice of founding father Benjamin Franklin:

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.

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