HARTFORD, CT — Some private insurance companies are leading the way when it comes to encouraging their members to become healthier.

Aetna provides a discount on health club memberships for its dental and medical participants. The fitness program has been offered to Aetna members since Jan. 1, 2001 in conjunction with GlobalFit, a discount network. More than 1,500 clubs are participating in the network.

“Clearly, there's no lack of information that would indicate that exercise is great for you,” said Susan Millerick, spokesperson for Aetna. “We wanted to make this available to members. Many of our programs are aimed at helping people live a healthy lifestyle.”

While Aetna members receive a discount on their health club memberships through the program, they don't receive a discount on their health insurance for working out at a health club, said Millerick.

Aetna also is piloting a weight management program this fall. The program offers participants tiered levels of outreach to help them lose weight. The level of outreach depends on the person's body mass index and the presence of co-morbid conditions. Aetna has completed a trial run of the program in limited markets and hopes to roll out the program next year nationwide.

Oxford Health Plans offers a $200 check every six months to its members who go to the gym 50 times during that time period. Also, the insurer offers a 10 percent discount on certain fitness equipment and discounts to members who join one of their specified weight loss programs.

Through its HealthCredits program, PacifiCare Health Systems offers prizes to members who enroll in and maintain a disease management or preventative regimen.

The fact that some insurers are getting on board the preventative bandwagon is no surprise considering that U.S. obesity-attributable medical expenditures reached $75 billion in 2003, according to a report by the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. About half of that cost was financed by taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid.

“The overall cost of health care is unsustainable,” said Kevin Buckley, deputy director of government relations at the International Health and Racquet Sportsclub Association. “Unfortunately, we had to reach this critical mass before people started to say that we need to do something before people get to this point.”