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VOL. 43 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 4, 2019

Why oh Y? Some questions about YMCA SilverSneakers decision

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Funny how new circumstances can alter your perspective on things. For instance, I used to think of SilverSneakers as a gym program for creaky old folks doing yoga while sitting in chairs.

Definitely not for me.

Then came my need to purchase supplemental coverage for Medicare. The selling point for the plan I bought was that it included SilverSneakers benefits. Which, I was told, would get me the YMCA membership that I’d previously rejected as too costly.

How costly? For “seniors” like me, $59 a month, a whopping $4 discount off the $63 charged for 31- to 64-year-olds. I’d paid a max of $40 for a non-senior membership at my New York gym. Why pay half-again as much in Nashville?

But paying nothing sounded pretty good. So, there I was on a Monday, at the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA with my SilverSneakers credentials. I was welcomed with open arms, a T-shirt and the promise of unlimited access to all things Y.

Two days later came news that Tennessee Ys were ending their association with the SilverSneakers program as of next year, potentially leaving 10,000 people out in the cold. Including me. Finger-pointing ensued.

“It came to a point where the YMCAs left us; we didn’t leave them,” Steve Janicak, president of the SilverSneakers program provider, told The Tennessean. “It’s disappointing.”

Ted Cornelius, executive director of the Tennessee State Alliance of YMCAs, responded with his own guest column in the paper.

“This is nothing more than a story of two different entities – one a for-profit and one a charitable nonprofit, whose missions simply don’t mesh,” he wrote.

Charitable? Didn’t feel that way.

Neither side would discuss specific figures, citing confidentiality required by the contract between the two. But the bottom line is that the Y wanted a higher reimbursement rate for SilverSneakers members – as much as 140% higher, Janicak says – and they couldn’t agree.

SilverSneakers, seeking to soften the blow for those 10,000 members about to lose their Y memberships, pointed out the 350 other facilities across the state that will still accept the program.

One of those is Hermitage Fitness Center, which is already feeling the impact of the coming change.

“My phone has rung off the hook,” says Barbara Sellars, who with her husband opened the gym 31 years ago.

Most of its older members have SilverSneakers or some other type of discount program, Sellars said. But even if they don’t, senior rates are $29 a month with a $30 enrollment fee, roughly half what the Y charges.

“We’re glad we can accommodate the folks they don’t seem to want anymore,” Sellars adds.

Ouch.

In response to questions about the Y from me, Cornelius says “seniors will not be left without affordable options. In 2020, the Y will continue to accept other, similar insurance-based plans for seniors that are better aligned with our pricing model.”

A point: Acceptance of “other, similar insurance-based plans” doesn’t help people who don’t have those other plans.

He went on to say that the Y would offer a new, lower rate for seniors affected by the SilverSneakers decision, and would also “continue to provide income-based financial assistance for individuals who need it.”

We don’t know yet what that lower rate will be. The financial assistance for seniors, I was told, applies to people with household income less than $52,500.

Among my questions to Cornelius is why the Y is so darned expensive in the first place. His response, in effect: We’re better than the other guys.

“While the Y’s membership rates are, in some cases, higher than for-profit providers who are often perceived as ‘similar,’ Y membership includes more robust services seldom offered by lower-priced for-profit providers.”

Among those “robust” services, he mentions access to hundreds of group classes, pools, whirlpools and saunas, and child care.

All of which my New York gym provided. For 40 bucks.

Signup for the new, reduced plan for seniors is supposed to start Oct. 15. What’s your best offer, Y?

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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