Chronic ailments such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are not contagious, and in many cases good nutrition is a key factor in decreasing the risk of individuals developing these conditions.

By helping shoppers make healthier purchases at the grocery store, and earn cash back from their health plan for doing so, the Boston-based nutrition wellness company NutriSavings believes it can incent employees to make healthier purchases that could positively change their shopping behavior and reduce healthcare costs over time.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Gerard Bridi, CEO of NutriSavings, talked to EBN about how the program operates, its benefits for both employers and employees and the recent addition of Walmart to its list of participating retailers.

EBN: How does this program work?

Bridi: NutriSavings is part of the wellness suite of programs that employers put in place, with one goal in mind, which is getting people healthier and eventually get the cost of healthcare down.

The first component is an education piece. We have created scores, which tell employees of participating employers if a product is “good” or “bad,” based on the ingredients such as additives, sugars and trans fats.

The second component is really an engagement mechanism, which constantly provides personalized information to each family about what they are buying, what they are eating, and what it can lead to.

The last piece is an incentive and reward engine. Every time a participant buys the right product or a better product, they receive incentives from either their employer, but mostly from the supply chain. The supply chain means, in this case, the manufacturers of healthy food, the growers, and everybody who is interested in good health and wants participants to be healthier.

EBN: How do supermarkets know I'm a participant in the program?

Bridi: There is an identifier that goes along with this, and this identifier in most cases, not all cases but in most cases, has to do with your loyalty card. The grocery store will ask you to register your loyalty card, or you can get an identifier on our website. Once you do that, the supermarkets provide us with the information around that number.

We look at all the purchases. We give a score to every one of them. We show you what the incentives are, and then we will email you the score of your shopping trip. You have an account with us, which means you can access that account. You can look at your score. You can look at what you have bought. We show you recommendations based on who you are and your food tolerances or intolerances or medical conditions, and then we add the incentives.

We have an advanced digital platform, but we also have an app. The app will be helping consumers to look at products while they are shopping. They can do it before shopping, so they can create a shopping list. They can do it at the supermarket by scanning the product to figure out if it's good or not, or to help choose between two products of the same category.

EBN: It seems to me there's an awful lot of data involved here and there are potential privacy issues.

Bridi: That point you are raising is extremely important. This data belongs to you, as a consumer, as an employee. This data is not shared with your employer, or your health plan, or anyone else.

EBN: Walk me through the steps an employee enrolled in the program would go through each time they shop for groceries at one of your partner stores.

Bridi: When employees enroll in the program, they provide us with the stores where they shop by giving us the number of the loyalty cards they use. That’s about it.

Then they go shopping. Every time they shop in one of these stores and they show the cashier their loyalty cards while checking out, the information on the back end will be sent to us. Whenever we get the information from the supermarket, we then score everything, post it to employees’ accounts and then send them emails.

EBN: How are incentives built into these group programs?

Bridi: Participants get electronic “coupons” for healthy products where the manufacturer is giving $1 off or $2 off or 20% cash back on the purchase. Once they activate the coupons on our site, and we see that they bought the product then the money goes into their account. Depending on what the employer prefers, this could be a health savings account or flexible spending account so employees can use the funds to defray health insurance premiums or other healthcare costs.

EBN: Walmart was recently added to the list of participating retailers. What other retailers have signed up?

Bridi: We have approximately 70-plus chains across the country. We are national in scope. Having Walmart participating is really, for us, very important because they have so many locations across the country and a lot of people who could benefit from a program like this shop at Walmart.

EBN: What's in it for the grocery stores? Do they get any financial remuneration?

Bridi: No, they don't. The reason they participate is, if you look at the grocery stores, most of them today say and behave as if they are part of part of the healthcare continuum. Most of them have pharmacies and dietitians on site.

EBN: How many employer clients do you currently have participating in the program?

Bridi: We currently have a little bit north of 10,000 employers. A lot of them are small, because we also work with health plans that have embedded the program into their fully insured population. Some of them are quite large. We have 1.4 million people eligible to participate in the program though their their employers currently. We hope to be up to about two and a half to three million by the end of the year.

EBN: If I'm an employer and I want to offer the program to my employees, what do I have to do?

Bridi: We do the implementation, we do the communication. The communication materials are seen and blessed by the employer and off they go. The program is voluntary for employees.

EBN: Who pays you? How much does it cost on a per-employee basis?

Bridi: Employers pay us. It all depends on how many employees the organization has. For a 1,000-employee company, we charge somewhere around $1.50 per employee per month. There is no cost to employees.

EBN: What's the typical take-up rate?

Bridi: Participation for us really means people who go shopping and show their card every week. We get participation, after a year where we do all the communications, around 40% to 50%, which is very high.

EBN: What are the advantages for employers participating in the program?

Bridi: Most employers here in the U.S., already offer some kind of wellness programs. Currently, if you look at the statistics, they spend around $904 a year on wellness programs. That can range from smoking cessation to health risk assessments, to offering yoga classes or a gym membership co-pay. With all of these programs, it can be difficult to track what the outcomes are.

Here you have a program where employees and employers can track behavioral changes in staff and their families. At the end of the day, if an employer is offering this, it's to make sure that employees are in better health, they are more productive today and ultimately they are going to be in better health tomorrow so their healthcare will cost less.

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