A major health insurer is giving out free Apple Watches. (But there's a catch.)

Eligible UnitedHealthcare members can now "walk off" the cost of an Apple Watch, giving members a pathway to getting a $300 version of the device for a fraction of the price, Christina Farr reports for CNBC.

The Daily Briefing is published by Advisory Board Research, a division of Optum, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group. UnitedHealth Group separately owns UnitedHealthcare.

Cheat sheet: What you need to know about wearables

Wearables are increasingly being viewed as a way to support a healthy lifestyle. But health care advocates have raised concerns that the devices' prices limit their access to young and healthy individuals who can afford the devices. UnitedHealthcare officials said this new partnership with Apple aims to lower that cost barrier.

"Some [wearable devices] are expensive, quite frankly, and they provide meaningful benefit in terms of someone wanting to participate and engage in their health," Paul Sterling, VP of UnitedHealth's emerging products, said. "We recognize that and so we're trying to reduce the cost burden."

How it works

UnitedHealthcare integrated the new Apple Watch feature into its existing health rewards program, called Motion. The program, which is open to UnitedHealthcare's employer-sponsored plans, rewards participants for meeting certain health goals that they track through wearables, which will now include the Apple Watch Series 3 or older versions.

Employers must opt in to the program, and from there, their employees can either register a device they already own or request a new device, paying only the taxes and shipping costs. 

Once members have their smartwatch, they can start meeting the program's FIT goals to earn up to $4 per day toward the cost of the watch. To meet the program's FIT goals, participants must:

  • Complete 500 steps in seven minutes, six times each day with only an hour of rest in between;
  • Complete 3,000 steps in 30 minutes, once per day; and
  • Walk 10,000 steps each day.

"It's not marathon running," Sterling said, adding, "We start and stop at a basic activity type, walking, which most of us can engage in and then we layer in a program structure."

Members can earn the cost of the device or up to $540 in a six-month period by meeting the requirements. Participants who do not earn the full cost of the watch in six months must pay a portion of the device's cost.

Early data shows the potential for cost savings

UnitedHealthcare is still conducting internal studies to determine if the program generates savings, Farr reports. 

According to Farr, early data show employers that joined Motion saw year-to-year savings of $222 per member. UnitedHealthcare also found that people with chronic conditions were among the most avid participants of the program. Members with diabetes were 40% more likely to enroll in Motion compared with people without a chronic medical condition, Farr reports (Farr, CNBC, 11/14).

Cheat sheet: What you need to know about wearables

Telehealth Primer: Wearables

Wearable technology encompasses the range of devices used by consumers to track their health- and activity-related data. As the multiple functions of wearables on the market continue to expand, consumers are becoming more invested in the potential for these devices to improve their daily habits. Wearable technology can help to facilitate patient activation and improve clinical outcomes.

The primer details how rising interest in health data, advancing care innovation, and expansion of FDA device approvals has impacted the adoption of wearables.

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