Subsidies for gym memberships would be a good way for health insurers to… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )
Anthem Blue Cross wants people to eat better. And to help its members make more healthful food choices, the insurance giant is sending out money-saving coupons.
For ice cream.
And processed sandwich meat.
And mayonnaise. And canned vegetables.
And, strangely, deodorant.
The coupon campaign is being tested among thousands of Anthem members in California. If it proves popular, the coupons will probably be offered nationwide.
"We want you to know that we're much more than just your health plan," the insurer declares in its letter accompanying the coupons. "We're your partner in helping you get and stay as healthy as possible."
Eating well is important for lowering your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and strokes, the company says.
"With smart buys on delicious, wholesome foods … we're putting the power of good health in the very best of hands — yours," it says. "Now go and savor the journey ahead."
Fruits and vegetables I could understand. Or organic foods. Or vitamins. Or medicine.
But it's a bit of a surprise that Anthem's idea of healthful living includes a coupon for $1.50 off boxes of Weight Watchers Giant Chocolate Fudge ice cream bars or Giant Vanilla ice cream sandwiches.
The Giant Chocolate Fudge ice cream bar has 110 calories, 70 milligrams of sodium and 25 grams of carbohydrates. The Giant Vanilla ice cream sandwich has 140 calories, 140 mg of sodium and 32 grams of carbs.
Those are better numbers than you'd encounter, say, with a box of Dove bars, except for the sugar. A chocolate-covered vanilla Dove bar has 320 calories, 40 mg of sodium and 32 grams of carbs.
Still, those Weight Watchers treats represent hefty chunks of the 2,000 calories, 2,300 mg of sodium and 250 grams of carbs that food experts say people should limit themselves to daily if they want to eat well.
And that's just one healthful-eating suggestion from Anthem. There's also a $1-off coupon for any Hormel Natural Choice sandwich meat.
Hormel's Honey Deli Ham boasts 520 mg of sodium per serving, or about a quarter of your daily allotment. The Brown Sugar Deli Ham has 570 mg of sodium.
Sodium, or salt, can contribute to high blood pressure and other ailments. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that U.S. kids are consuming way too much sodium, almost as much as adults.
Another Anthem coupon offers 60 cents off for a jar of Best Foods Mayonnaise Dressing with Olive Oil, a single serving of which will add 60 calories to your sandwich and an additional 120 mg of sodium.
Looking for a tasty side dish? Anthem includes a $1-off coupon for any two cans of Del Monte vegetables or fruit.
A half-cup serving of cut green beans contains only 20 calories but 390 mg of sodium. A half-cup serving of honey-glazed carrots features 70 calories and 440 mg of sodium.
And since being healthy apparently means smelling healthy, Anthem is offering members a coupon for 50 cents off any Ban antiperspirant or deodorant.
Kristin Binns, an Anthem spokeswoman, said the coupons are from a marketing company called Linkwell Health, which has partnered with the insurance giant to encourage more healthful eating choices.
The idea, she said, is that many people will buy ice cream or mayonnaise anyway, so why not steer them toward products with lower calories or sodium counts?
"The mailed coupons are an engaging way to provide members with information to help them live healthier and make gradual changes by pointing them to healthier food alternatives … and other items that contribute to a healthy lifestyle," Binns said.
She said a first round of letters was sent recently to about 180,000 Anthem members "identified with, or at risk of, diabetes or heart health conditions." A second round was sent to an additional 190,000 people that the insurer sees as desiring more info on healthful living.
Binns said Anthem receives no money from coupon providers and leaves all such deal making to Linkwell. But the campaign is being offered under Anthem's imprimatur, with letters to members signed by the senior medical director for Anthem Blue Cross of California.
As for why coupons are being sent for deodorant along with foods, Binns said dry, fresh-scented underarms "fit into the scope of healthy living and well-being."
OK, I get it. Anthem wants people to eat (and smell) better. Rival insurer Humana has a similar program for 5% discounts on healthful food purchases at Wal-Mart.
But it seems like a halfhearted effort to encourage consumption of foods that are only modestly more nutritional than the junk that many people like to eat.
If you're going to promote wellness, why not go all-in? Provide incentives to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, or fresh meat and fish.
Better still, don't even fool around with coupons. Offer subsidies for gym memberships. And reduce premiums for people who don't smoke or drink or who meet benchmarks for weight and fitness.
Helping people buy ice cream? Not exactly a recipe for success.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org