“We’ve seen time and again, the lack of good and nutritional food causes members to get readmitted to hospitals,” says Ananth Lalithakumar, Oscar Executive.
Many insurance plans are paying for temporary meal deliveries, and some are even trying to teach people how to cook and eat healthier. Insurers and policymakers are treating food as a form of medicine that can help patients with problems like reducing blood sugar or blood pressure levels and stay out of expensive hospitals, say Benefit experts.
However, this initiative is still small and mostly happening with Medicaid or Medicare advantage (government-funded programs).
Medicare plans to start testing meal program vouchers for patients with malnutrition next year to improve care and reduce costs. Research suggests that 7 million people were enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan last year that offered some meal benefit.
Oscar Health arranged temporary grocery deliveries at no cost to the recipient after finding that three out of ten of its customers were facing a food shortage. Medicare Advantage specialist Humana has started giving some low-income customers debit cards with $25 or $50 to help buy healthy food.
Dr. Andrew Renda says that diabetic patients end up making more hospital visits because even if they are taking their medications, they don’t have enough food, due to which their blood sugar goes high. Then they end up in the hospital.
Insurer Anthem connected Kim Bischoff with a nutritionist after she asked for help with losing weight. Though she lost only a few pounds, she could stop taking blood pressure and thyroid medications after balancing her diet, her health improved. David Berwick credits a meal delivery program with improving his blood sugar.
Researchers are expecting that coverage of food as a form of medicine to grow. Patients with low incomes may need help first with getting access to nutritional food. Those with employer-sponsored coverage may need to focus more on managing their diabetes or improving their overall health using their diet.
A 2019 study with similar medical conditions found that those who received tailored meals had fewer hospital admissions and spent less on health care than those who did not.
Dr. Seth Berkowitz, study author, commented that those meals are only one method for addressing food or nutrition problems. He said a lot more could be learned “about what interventions work, in what situations and for whom.”
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