Early retirements in the NFL are becoming increasingly common as players become more cognizant of the long-term health implications that come with an extensive playing career.
There are nearly 150 retired NFL players residing in Tennessee, and thanks to a new partnership between Ascension Saint Thomas, Cigna and the Tennessee Titans, those players now have access to a supplemental health care program -- thanks to the 2020 collective bargaining agreement -- beyond their primary insurance plans through the NFL’s Dedicated Hospital Network Program.
“It’s of no cost to the players,” Ascension Saint Thomas President and CEO Tim Adams tells the Post. “[The program] is primarily for immunization, wellness visits, some more comprehensive care that includes imaging and some other services like that, as well as outpatient mental health services.”
Thanks to the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, retired NFL players have $25,000 annually at their disposal through the program for a range of services such as preventive care, primary medical care (including certain orthopedic treatments) and mental health services.
“Annual maximums that they have renew each year on Sept. 1,” says Alyssa Greco, the Collectively Bargained Player Benefit Coordinator for the NFL. “Once they deplete those funds each year, hopefully they keep using this benefit and run out that $25,000 for primary medical care as well as mental health services.”
"We anticipate that eligible retired players with the Titans will utilize Ascension due to their relationships and familiarity with their doctors from their time as active players," Cigna Program Director for the NFL’s Dedicated Hospital Network Program Bridget Slade says. “We’ve already seen that we’ve gotten lots of players in the Middle Tennessee area who’ve reached out and expressed excitement around utilizing the program.”
Once an eligible vested player retires, they have healthcare coverage through the NFL player insurance plans. The Continuing Veteran Coverage program provides players with five years of health insurance for free.
When that five-year period ends, players are then transitioned to the Dedicated Hospital Network Program, which offers 100 percent coverage for certain services up to the annual maximums.
To qualify for the Dedicated Hospital Network Program, retired players must have spent four years in the league -- or four credited seasons -- prior to 1993 or three seasons after 1994. The program runs through a player’s 65th birthday.
“[The program] is really focused on player wellness,” Slade adds. “We’re seeing that the benefits — particularly the preventive care benefits that encourage players to use the program — there’s no maximum associated with covered preventive care services. So that means that those preventive physicals, colonoscopies, a lot of those really critical cancer screenings that are recommended for players once they reach a certain age, are really essential as they think about establishing a relationship with a primary care physician.”
In addition to filling the gap in terms of a player’s physical health care needs, the Dedicated Hospital Network Program also reflects the NFL and NFLPA's new mental health initiative by providing players with access to any necessary programs and resources.
“When players leave the game, we look at them as whole people, not just as football players,” says Belinda Lerner, VP of Alumni Affairs and Retired Player Programs for the NFL.“We recognize that mental health is an issue that’s broad across, not only the country, but the world, and there should be more attention paid to it, particularly when there are events like major transitions like leaving the game that players may be facing.
“We want to provide that safety net so they know it’s available. We [also] try to eliminate some of the stigma that’s attached with that so people feel more comfortable accessing those resources.”
Mental health has become a growing focal point for players transitioning from a full-time NFL schedule to ordinary life.
A recent study presented by The American Academy of Neurology found that more than 40 percent of the retired NFL players who participated in the study showed signs of traumatic brain injuries based on a series of MRI scans and cognitive tests.
Such brain injuries have been linked to an increase in depression and anxiety, long- and short-term memory loss, cognitive impairment, dependence on drugs and alcohol, increased aggression and emotional instability, and physical manifestations such as headaches and seizures.
The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2019 that found nearly one-fourth of the 3,500 retired NFL players who participated in the study reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and one-in-five participants reported symptoms of both.
Less than 37 percent of the nearly 40 million adults who suffer from depression and anxiety actually get the proper treatment, and half of people who experience anxiety also suffer from depression, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
“There’s been a bit of an awakening more broadly throughout the U.S. about mental health,” Adams says. “It is something that I think … we didn’t pay the right amount of attention to in the past. So, we’ve tried as a health system, we’ve talked about meeting the total needs of a patient, to not forget that and focus on the total care that we need to provide.
“Specific to the NFL, I’m sure they acknowledge the same need for those types of services and think we’re all as an industry leaning into and investing in providing holistic care for patients both physically and mentally.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_