Top exec defends YMCA amid SilverSneakers dispute

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You’ve no doubt read about how YMCAs across the state have decided to end their relationship with the SilverSneakers program as of the end of this year.  

The for-profit owner of the SilverSneakers program has been quite vocal in portraying this as the Y abandoning seniors.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 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. 

It is curious that Tivity is waging an expensive, aggressive persuasion campaign to get out in front of the story. We prefer to let the facts carry the day.

Let us say up front that we would prefer to be more specific about the terms of our business arrangement with Tivity, but we are contractually prohibited from being transparent. We have a responsibility to protect the Y from further financial harm that could result from litigation for violating confidentiality clauses, which Tivity has aggressively threatened to enforce. But trust us, there are two sides to this story. 

Tennessee YMCAs already give away well over $8 million in financial assistance to ensure kids, families and seniors of all income levels have access to our programs and services.  Thousands of people benefit from this assistance. Need-based access is at the heart of our mission, and we ask thousands of donors to join us in the worthy cause of breaking down socio-economic barriers. 

While we agree Medicare Advantage plans are another means of improving access, the YMCA compensation rates offered by for-profit middle-person companies who create these plans vary widely, and we cannot continue to accept plans that affect our financial viability. As a nonprofit, we owe it to our donors and the public to be fiscally responsible. 

The YMCA has always served, and will continue to serve, seniors.  For example, in Middle Tennessee, which has the most YMCA members in the state, there are approximately 15,000 senior members of the Y who are not SilverSneakers members, as compared to an average of 5,400 SilverSneakers who scan at a facility each month.  The majority of our non-SilverSneakers members pay monthly dues, while others participate in Medicare Advantage programs similar to SilverSneakers. We will continue to accept those insurance-based programs that align with our mission and do not compromise sustainability. The point is, seniors affected by the SilverSneakers decision will have multiple options if they want to continue to come to the YMCA.  

Although Tivity has suggested they are not aware of other Ys exiting the program, we are not the first YMCA to leave SilverSneakers.  This is a trend across the country. 

YMCAs on the state level and the national level worked for many months with Tivity, trying to get them to understand our concerns and making suggestions that would result in better alignment of our pricing and payment models. Tivity even formed a national advisory council comprised of various YMCA CEOs from around the country, but very few of our recommendations were adopted. 

Tivity made some small financial steps but simply could not or would not accommodate the YMCA to the degree we felt necessary in order to maintain our viability for the future.  We hold no ill will toward Tivity for making its decisions, and they should hold no ill will toward the Ys for making our decisions.  

And like we said, we are not alone in our decision. Try Googling stories from Seattle, Tacoma, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Richmond to see what has happened in those cities. Again, the SilverSneakers business model and the YMCA’s simply don’t work well together.  

The decision to withdraw from SilverSneakers was not a quick one or a desired one. Make no mistake: This decision will have a negative financial impact on our YMCAs and cause confusion for seniors in the short term. However, that short-term impact will be much easier to weather than a long-term relationship with SilverSneakers, which would impair the Y’s ability to serve seniors, kids and families.  

The Y will work very hard to make sure that all seniors have an opportunity to continue to enjoy the services and the social interaction at the Y that has made it such a treasured place for seniors to spend time.

The Y has been around for over 100 years in many areas of Tennessee. It’s folly to believe that one very well thought-out decision made to ensure the long-term viability of a YMCA could be portrayed as an abandonment, an act of greed or a departure from our mission. 

Ted Cornelius

Executive director, Tennessee State Alliance of YMCAs 

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