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On the Third Hand: Guinea pigs

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Aetna Inc. (NYSE:AET) came out today with a new, online condition management program that’s designed to help U.S. adults cope with “metabolic syndrome.”

Metabolic syndrome is, basically, the meat and potatoes of conditions that ruin the health of people who eat too much meat and potatoes.

To find out whether you have metabolic syndrome, you look at a list of five risk factors — large waist size, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol and high blood sugar. If you have three or more of the risk factors, you have metabolic syndrome and are twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop diabetes as other people.

Health costs go up 25 percent for each risk factor on the list that you have.

Aetna is testing a program developed by researchers from Duke and eMindful that uses “mindfulness” techniques to make participants more aware of their emotions and the other factors that contribute to or detract from their motivation to eat better and exercise more.

Initially, I thought about writing about this program just because it seems to be a great, fairly unusual condition for a condition management program or wellness program to target. The programs usually seem to target obesity by itself, or the health problems of people who are already catastrophically ill. 

Aetna, it turns out, is not the first organization to start a metabolic syndrome program. Cigna (NYSE:CI) and HealthInsight, a nonprofit group, have also started high-profile programs for fighting metabolic syndrome.

But then it occurred to me that there’s a story behind the metabolic syndrome program story: Aetna has been testing the program on 600 of its own employees.

On the one hand: Of course. The insurance industry has a very long, noble, useful history of testing all sorts of programs on its own employees.

On the other hand: It struck me that this could be a grimly humorous argument the health insurance community could use to make to convince various policymakers to at least value the abstract idea of preserving health insurance industry employment. 

The selling point could be, “Protect health insurance industry jobs, and you’ll have lots of office workers with computers that you can use to test all sorts of wellness and condition management programs!”

On the third hand, maybe it’s a bad idea to talk too much about that idea. If people do, maybe officials will try making health insurance industry workers sign up for their benefits through … the exchanges.

On the fourth hand: There are 435 members of the House, 100 members of the Senate, and many thousands of additional bright, computer-equipped staffers. Maybe they could be the first ones to enroll in coverage through the exchanges …

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