A Beneficial Relationship

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Kurhan

In January 2000, the Lower Paxton Township Parks and Recreation Department (Harrisburg, Penn.), completed construction of a 59,000-square-foot recreation facility called The Friendship Center, to house the community’s numerous activities. The facility was a dream-come-true for many members.

The opening of the facility was spectacular! Everyone from families to senior citizens purchased memberships, and within the first 3 months we exceeded our first-year goal. There were programs to accommodate everyone: fitness, aquatics, gymnasium activities, aerobics, classes targeting preschoolers, etc.

However, as the years passed, the community—like many others—was affected negatively by the poor economy. Since recreation was not on the “essential list” for many people, it was one of the first items cut from their monthly expenses. Recognizing these financial struggles, the recreation department searched for ways to offer affordable sports, fitness, and recreational activities.

A Door Opens

During this time, the Friendship Center staff was approached by several health insurance companies to join a program that offers free memberships or reimbursement for Medicare clients, age 65 and over with specific supplemental-insurance coverage. Initially, there was some hesitation, but we realized partnering with these companies would be necessary for recreation facilities and programs to remain affordable. In taking small steps in following this national trend, The Friendship Center gradually became a popular site for the community to take advantage of their health insurance benefit. Some companies also offered plans with similar fitness membership benefits to anyone age 18 or older.

The goal of the insurance-based programs is to assist older adults in achieving better health through regular exercise, recreation, and health education. There have been both positive and negative effects in regard to the no-cost/low-cost fitness memberships. Upon announcing this partnership, current members eligible for insurance coverage had to be refunded their annual fees already paid and then had to register for the new program. Because the program pays on a pervisit basis up to a maximum of 10 visits per month, the parks and rec department was not guaranteed the same income. The importance of getting insurance members into the facility at least 10 times a month in order to be entitled to the $30-per-month membership reimbursement quickly became apparent. There was an attempt to enforce a penalty for those not visiting the facility at least 10 times per month, but the insurance companies warned that this was not permitted.

Over time, participation in the insurance program increased. As its “free” status became more popular, the management realized the importance of getting people involved and into the facility through social events, exercise classes, and wellness coaching. After all, a membership not utilized amounts to no income.

Relevant And Affordable

The marketing for the program is organized primarily by the insurance carriers. Through marketing brochures, open-house activities, and social media, active adults are made aware upon renewing their policies which particular facilities participate in these popular programs. This approach was beneficial for us because it brought more awareness to the facility and its programs. The original program has shown steady growth over the last 3 years, but what about the future? Will insurance coverage continue to provide these benefits to patrons? How will reimbursement fees affect budgetary needs? We need to continue to monitor these contracts and their relationship to the recreation industry for our future benefit.

New participants are joining weekly. We have now partnered with a new insurance program that offers the reimbursement program to the younger population and families. This will continue to assist us in reaching our goals in sports, fitness, and recreation.

Lynn Wuestner is the recreation manager for the Lower Paxton Township Parks and Recreation Department in Harrisburg, Penn. Reach her at Lwuestner@lowerpaxton-pa.gov .