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It pays to be in shape, stay healthy

Judy Hilburger calls her husband’s workout partners “The Zipper Club.” For years, these men – all of whom have weathered open heart surgery – got together almost every morning at the Buffalo Athletic Club Eastern Hills branch to walk the treadmills, push through parts of the exercise machine circuit and chat up the latest stories in the morning newspaper.

That changed just after Christmas, when LA Fitness bought the four BAC coed clubs and told retirees the chain would not honor Medicare-related discounts, a benefit that bought their gym membership for $25 a year, or less. Now the cost would be $300 a year, maybe more.

“All the guys that are 65 and over are going to have to leave,” said Hilburger’s husband, Mike, 74.

Judy and Mike Hilburger joined the Independent Health Family Branch YMCA in Amherst this month.

“It’s just going to be an adjustment,” Judy said. “I know I’m going to be seeing quite a few people either from my neighborhood or the BAC.”

The big three insurers in the region all say they have reached out to LA Fitness about honoring their senior fitness benefits, but have been rebuffed. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that dozens of fitness centers across Western New York accept Medicare supplemental insurance benefits offered by BlueCross BlueShield of WNY, Independent Health and Univera Healthcare.

Even better, the insurers also offer similar benefit packages to a growing number of those they cover. Here’s a snapshot of programs available with some of their products. Check their websites for more detailed information and check with your insurer to find out if your plan has these or similar benefits. If so, it may be worth the effort to fill out forms and participate – in terms of both health and savings.

BlueCross BlueShield of WNY / (

Members of the BlueCross BlueShield of WNY-supported Silver Sneakers program in the region are among those who populate Silver Sneakers classes at more than 150 gyms that include YMCA Buffalo Niagara, BAC for Women and Jewish Community Center sites. The program provides senior citizens with no-cost health club memberships as well as health workshops and online support to help members lose weight, quit smoking or reduce stress. Seniors who would rather work out at home can be mailed a home exercise kit.

“We want to give members the tools to keep themselves healthy or address chronic diseases, for example diabetes. If they take advantage of those things, we’re going to give them a lower health care premium, make their co-pay less or change their deductible. … If not, you have the choice, but you’re going to pay more for your insurance,” said Karl Siebert, director of wellness program operations, of the company’s value-based approach.

The region’s largest insurer also offers the following benefits with some of its other plans, open to a range of age groups:

Member discounts: Similar to Groupon, costs savings range from 10 percent to 50 percent on a variety of fitness, holistic health, child fitness, elder care and fitness equipment options. More than 100 fitness centers participate. Free.

Wellness Card: “It’s a Visa card that members can use at fitness centers, health food retailers, massage therapists, physical therapists, things like that,” Siebert said. “It’s based on the merchant type, not the actual merchant.” Cost range is $100 to $600, depending on the insurance rider.

My Health: Members can go online and take a personalized health assessment, create a customized health profile, participate in online wellness workshops, get help with meal planning and find a health coach.

Community Wellness: Insurance subscribers have free access to more than 150 workshops, classes and support groups across the region. Nutrition, stress management, weight management and senior and women’s health are among those involved.

Independent Health / (

Lora Fletcher is among those in the region who uses this insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plan fitness benefit called Healthy Benefits. The Hilburgers have this benefit, too. This allows them to pay only $20 a year for a fitness club membership; their insurance pays the balance.

Fletcher, a retired Buffalo Public Schools speech therapist, used the benefit to join the YMCA, where she takes part in aerobics classes, laughter yoga and “pickle ball,” a combination of ping pong, tennis and badminton. The list of participating gyms is only about half as long as those taking fitness benefits open to other subscribers at varying age ranges. That’s because there are greater requirements for gyms that accept Medicare fitness programs, said Frank Sava, spokesman for the insurer. Other programs the insurer offers include:

Nutrition Benefit: The program launched this month. Those covered need to register online, fill out a “well-being assessment” and then get $1 back for every $2 in fresh fruits and vegetables they buy at Tops Markets. The discount is applied to your Tops Bonus Card and you are reimbursed quarterly with a rewards card you can use at Tops to buy anything but tobacco products. The benefit is worth up to $500 for an individual, or $1,000 for a family.

PersonalBest!: Those with this benefit get a $250 debit card to use toward a variety of health and wellness services, including a fitness club membership, after-school programs and massage therapy.

FlexFit and FlexFit Select: These benefits allow up to $250 per subscriber for family activities that include memberships at participating fitness centers, swimming lessons, soccer and gymnastics. Benefits also can help cover vitamins and alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and dieting consultations at participating locations.

Univera Healthcare / (

“What we’ve discovered upon doing research … is that in some instances you can motivate people to do the things we all know we should be doing by providing a cash incentive,” said Pamela Pawenski, vice president of commercial sales for Univera Healthcare. “We try to keep it as simple as possible – in some cases, with flat-out cash bribes.”

That strategy can be effective in about 35 percent of cases, Pawenski said, while “penalty based programs” can see adherence of up to 85 percent. An example of the latter is Univera’s HealthyU, a program employers can add to a coverage package. Employers can offer a slight reduction in the employee contribution toward premiums for those who agree to have a health screening to detect treatable conditions whose early symptoms otherwise might go undetected. Other programs include:

ExerciseRewards: A fitness facility reimbursement program that’s an “essential benefit” in all small employer group and individual (health exchange) coverage options. Encourages healthy lifestyles with online tools, discounts to fitness centers and monetary reimbursement for using a fitness facility of up to $600 annually.

ActiveRewards: Launched in 2007 to offer cash or gift card incentives. Members can earn up to $1,000 per family annually by doing, and tracking, healthy activities, including exercise, good nutrition and routine check-ups.

FitDollars: Reimburses up to $300 for health club memberships, children’s fitness activities, weight management programs and some adult fitness classes.

Silver & Fit: For Medicare members, this benefit is similar to Silver Sneakers.

Others: TakeSteps outlines strategies for better eating and exercise; Fun 2B Fit encourages students and their parents to try new foods, exercise more and cook together.