Auto insurers offer a range of discounts for safe driving. Should health insurers be in the game of offering discounts for healthy eating?
Financial incentives as motivation to buy more nutritious foods are being tested in the U.S. following a successful experiment in South Africa. Results from research conducted by the RAND Corporation, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM), showed "rebates on healthy food purchases lead to significant changes in what people put in their grocery carts."
According to the AJPM, rebates in the test could be claimed by consumers in over 400 designated supermarkets. Credit card data for 170,000 households, of which 60 percent enrolled for rebates, were scanned over four years, although the study only tracked purchases at one chain per household.
"Rebates of 10 percent and 25 percent for healthy foods are associated with an increase in the ratio of healthy to total food expenditure ... and a decrease in the ratio of less desirable to total food expenditure," the AJPM reported.
Cash-back offers were given for fruit and vegetables, non-fat dairy products and a range of other healthy food at a specified supermarket.
Lead researcher Roland Sturm said even the smaller rebate was "enough to change behavior. The take-home message here is clear: lowering the cost of nutritionally preferable foods — the healthy foods — can motivate people to significantly improve their diet."
Health insurers support both the South African study and the current American trial. In the U.S., Humana is linked with Vitality, which owns Discovery, South Africa's largest insurer.
Rebates of only five percent were given in the American experiment compared to ten in South Africa or 25 percent if participants complete questionnaires.
Vitality's senior vice president, Derek Yach, acknowledged that 10 percent was better than five, according to NPR. Mr. Yach believes RAND's findings are significant, demonstrating that nudging can result in people modifying their diets.
Voice of America pointed out participants were self-selecting, possibly indicating a predisposition to eating healthily; nor were purchases from other sources tracked.
More recently, Medica began working with technology company, Solutran, to automatically upload discounts from healthy food manufacturers to members' cards at the checkouts of retailers across the U.S. Whichever way you look at it, insurers want consumers to be healthy, paying up front to increase wellness and decrease preventable illnesses that could cost more long term.
How much of an effect will cash rebates, regardless of the source, have on what types of foods that consumers purchase?