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Russell Wangersky: Insurers could take an active interest in you

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You get more bees with honey than with vinegar — but that doesn’t mean a diet solely of honey is necessarily healthy.

Look at it another way: the carrot often works better than the stick, but the goal is pretty much the same — to get the donkey to go where you want it to go.

And hello, fitness tracker.

In the United States, health insurers are noting the growth of fitness tracking devices, and are considering them, in some cases, to be proof of an active lifestyle. (Keep in mind, this involves health benefits in the U.S. that cover medical care, something that’s already covered by our federal and provincial governments.)

Allow insurance companies access to your Fitbit or other tracking device, and if you’re reaching goals the insurers set, you qualify for rate cuts, rebates, or in some cases, gift cards.

Some companies provide that for their employees as well.

But there’s an interesting thing to consider in all that — overall medical costs stay the same, so if you’re paying less because of your healthy lifestyle, chances are someone else is picking up the slack.

In Canada, Manulife started musing about a rewards program or rebates for people who reach activity goals as far back as 2016. At the time, the company’s argument was that, “It revolutionizes the insurance market in Canada.” At least, that’s what Manulife president and CEO Marianne Harrison told the Toronto Star. “It’s a new perspective in terms of looking at consumers and helping them to lead long, healthy lives.”

But what about the dark side? If you subscribe to cheaper insurance rates tied to your fitness tracker, what’s the message your insurance company is going to get if your fitness numbers lag, or if, heaven forbid, you tell them you’d like to opt out of the program? Red flags all around.

Would they even want to insure you, or at least insure you at rates you can afford, if you’re essentially confirming that you’re going to be more sedentary than you have been in the past?

Insurance rates are set based on the actuarial realities of the amount of money that companies expect to have to pay out. You may pay in to life insurance for years, reach an age where it’s no longer cost-effective to stay insured (or an age where you no longer need to worry about, say, helping your children with their education) and might let it lapse.

More information about individuals allows insurance companies to “game” their numbers; if you knock a certain number of individuals out of the general rate pool because of their healthier lifestyles, you have a correspondingly smaller pool of riskier clients — and everyone knows, the insurance industry loves to charge for risk. Just ask anyone who opens the envelope to find their new insurance rates after their youngster has a fender-bender.

It reminds me a lot of the idea of the risks of allowing insurance companies to use genetic testing results to determine pre-existing conditions.

In some ways, without being flip, life is a pre-existing condition. You can’t use a Fitbit to forecast if someone is going to get hit by a bus at age 32 while they are crossing the street, but there are plenty things, from cancer on down, that can be forecast from a little peek at your genetic information.

And remember, it’s not all about the nuts and bolts of what you are sharing — it’s the overall review of every scrap of available information.

There’s also a possibility that cross-referencing activity and other device-monitored health information with other data could create a picture of the type of customer that insurers wouldn’t want to have.

Too much information truly can be a dangerous thing.

Read more columnists here.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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