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Austria plans for fitness

15th May 2006

15052006_gym1.jpgAustria's sports minister has put forward a plan to help his countrymen fight off obesity by a scheme of subsidised gym membership for health-insurance holders, reports Jim Glenn in The Lancet. Estimates indicate the scheme could save €3 billion in health-care costs, but insurers seem reluctant to help pay.
 
Karl Schweitzer, Austria's State Secretary for Sport, says he wants to create an incentive to get fit by allowing everyone with health insurance to have their gym or sports club membership subsidised.

The plan is still in its initial stages, but €3 million has reportedly been earmarked; Schweitzer has said it could save as much as €3·6 billion in health-care costs.

His plan follows on from a study which showed that 60% of Austrians take part in some form of sports less than one or two times a month. More than half (54·3%) of all men and more than one fifth (21·3%) of women are overweight. Children also suffer from weight problems with 15% of those aged 7–10 years being classified as overweight.

The study showed that 86% of Austrians have an interest in sports and Schweitzer, a self-taught sports instructor who runs marathons, believes that this enthusiasm can be used to encourage more people to get fit.

The scheme would allow every Austrian covered by the state health-insurance system to get a substantial discount when they present their health-insurance cards when attending any one of the clubs or fitness centres of 800 certified sports associations across the country.

Insurance bodies seem reluctant to back the scheme. A spokesman for the Association of Austrian Social Insurance Agencies, Dieter Holzweber says that the proposal 'is certainly a good idea but cannot be financed by social health insurance'. He adds that 'it is part of the responsibility of each insured person to provide for his or her personal health.'

Austria's state health-insurance system is administered by a complex set of quasi-state-run institutions with different bodies operating in different regions of the country. An individual's insurer is determined by their profession or place of residence.

Franz Bittner, the head of the Vienna health-insurance office is reported to have reacted positively to the proposal. The Ministry of Health has also cautiously welcomed the proposals.

A Spokesman for the Health Ministry said that the proposal needs to be further developed in terms of content and financing before Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat can evaluate its effectiveness.

Sport club managers and fitness coaches have backed the idea, highlighting the long-term cost benefits it could have for the Austrian health-care system. Ordinary Austrians, however, have mixed views of Schweitzer's proposal.

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