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Investing in obesity battle, Humana may give Weight Watchers new life

In an effort to hone another tool to treat obesity, Humana is partnering with a struggling but well-regarded brand that helped define American weight loss.

Under a new deal, some two million members in Humana employer health plans will have access to discounts for Weight Watchers' healthy eating program.

Qualified Humana members will be able to use Weight Watchers a no out-of-pocket costs for six months and at a "significant discount thereafter," the insurer said. Self-funded employers using Humana's administrative services will have to opt in for the program.

Humana members can follow the Weight Watchers course all online, with a new 24/7 chat and access to apps, or they can choose the Weight Watchers Meetings for peer sessions and in-person support from a coach who has lost weight -- the service that turned the Weight Watchers into a billion dollar company.

"We want to help employers find effective ways to battle obesity, improve the overall wellness of their employees and create healthy communities," said Beth Bierbower, president of Humana's employer group segment. "With that in mind, partnering with Weight Watchers just made sense; it allows us to connect our members with a leading weight loss program so that they can better navigate their wellness journeys."

Jim Chambers, Weight Watchers International president and CEO, said the company's mission to "change people's relationship with food for good" very aligns with "Humana's mission to support lifelong well-being."

Losing the pounds, keeping them off as a business

Weight Watchers was born in the wake of America's post-war boom in prosperity, just as obesity was becoming an actual problem. In 1961, Jean Nidetch, a 214-pound Queens, New York resident, started following the "Prudent Diet" targeted at cardiac health that the New York City Board of Health promoted at free clinics. Using those tenets and support from her friends in at-home talk therapy sessions, Nidetch lost 72 pounds herself and watched others do likewise.

After Al Lippert, an obese executive in the garment industry, attended meetings to some success, he and Nidetch co-founded and incorporated the Weight Watchers company in 1963, and started collecting fees. Nidetch is still thin, at the age of 91; Lippert kept the pounds off too and passed away in 1998, at 72.

The company promoted a positive method of dieting that ranked foods on points, with fiber-dense veggies highlighted as a tasty mainstay, and leveraged social support through group meetings. It was so successful that in 1968, Weight Watchers went public and a decade later was acquired by H.J. Heinz Company -- helping millions of people, with varying levels of success, through 1980s and 1990s.

With meetings and revenue slumping, in 1999 Weight Watchers was subject to a $735 million leveraged buyout by the Invus Group and Artal Luxembourg. Two years later it went public, again, and flourished in the aughts economy. In 2011 the company had a banner year, earning $305 million on revenues of $1.8 billion.

Since then, though, the stock price has fallen by more than 50 percent. Weight Watcher's revenues have declined or held flat and meetings have waned -- as consumers found new options in low-cost or free digital dieting and exercise apps online or on smartphones..

But with Chambers, the CEO since 2013, Weight Watchers is gaming for a comeback. It redesigned its website and expanded its digital presence and just sponsored its first Super Bowl ad and is now starting what appears to be its most comprehensive partnership with an insurer ever, at a time when insurers themselves are trying new strategies.

Other large employers and insurers have helped members get discounts on Weight Watchers and similar programs -- Aetna's Coventry members, for instance, can subscribe to three months of Weight Watchers online for $55 -- but Humana's deal seems to be the first to integrate Weight Watchers into disease management and wellness services.

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