How Can Seniors Receive Free Home-Delivered Meals?

Posted on Thursday, June 24, 2021

Food insecurity among older Americans is more common than many people might think. For example, roughly 7.2% of all food-insecure households include someone over the age of 65 (a total of 2.9 million households). Even though there are programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in place to help alleviate food access challenges, the average SNAP benefit for households with older adults was $121.60 in 2018, and millions of more seniors do not take advantage of SNAP at all, even though they are otherwise eligible.

What many people do not realize is that millions of seniors are eligible for free home-delivered meal programs at no cost to them, typically through either a health insurance plan under Medicare Advantage or Medicaid or through a community organization such as an Area Agency on Aging (AAA).

Here are some of the most common ways seniors might access a free home-delivered meals program.

Medicaid Benefit

Many health plans covered by Medicaid offer their members a home-delivered meal benefit under a variety of circumstances:

  • Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) – Usually reserved for individuals with disabling conditions and chronic illnesses, LTSS programs are designed to help members support independence, health, and quality of life. Meals are often part of that package, as many LTSS members face difficulty accessing, purchasing, and/or preparing their own meals at home due to functional or cognitive limitations, or social determinants of health.
  • Waiver programs – the Social Security Act includes provisions for a variety of waiver programs (such as sections 1135(b), 1115, and 1915(c)) that are designed to temporarily protect and/or expand access to Medicaid care and services that might not otherwise be available to a Medicaid enrollee under normal circumstances.

    This often includes LTSS and home and community-based services (HCBS), which in some cases encompass nutrition programs, including home-delivered meals. The use of waiver programs has increased in 2020 and 2021 due to the ongoing challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding access to millions.

How to access: Contact your case manager to find out if you qualify to receive home-delivered meals free or at a discount.

Medicare Advantage Benefit

While everyone age 65 and up is eligible for basic Medicare at no charge, many individuals opt to participate in a Medicare Advantage plan, which comes with a variety of supplemental benefits not included in the standard Medicare offering. This often includes dental, vision, prescriptions, transportation, and some sort of nutrition benefit, such as home-delivered meals. In exchange for these services, members may pay a monthly premium and/or have a copay arrangement.

Medicare Advantage plans use supplemental benefits like home-delivered meals for a couple of reasons: one, these benefits are thought to help support and protect a person’s health, and two, these benefits help the plan stand out in a competitive market. In fact, 2021 marked the first year in which more than half (57%) of Medicare Advantage plans offered a meal service as a non-primarily health-related benefit.

While benefit design may vary from plan to plan, some of the most common use cases include:

  • Post-discharge support: Some plans will automatically provide meals for a defined period of time to members who have just been discharged from a hospital or other overnight healthcare stay.
  • Chronic care support: Some plans will provide meals to members living with one or more chronic conditions that require complex care coordination. In some cases, the meals will be tailored to specific nutritional needs such as support for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or kidney disease – this is often done under a relatively new benefit design option known as a Special Supplemental Benefit for the Chronically Ill, or SSBCI, which was first put into practice in 2020.

How to access: Contact your health plan to find out if they have home-delivered meals as part of their plan and if you’re eligible to receive them.

Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs)

The 1965 Older Americans Act (OAA) introduced federal nationwide support for a variety of programs and services geared specifically toward seniors, including Area Agencies on Aging, which are local-level nonprofit organizations designed to address the needs and concerns of older individuals.

The OAA includes support for nutrition programs, including grants for both home-delivered meals and congregates meal services (i.e. feeding people in-person in a group setting). These grants are funded at the federal level, meaning recipients receive the meals at no cost to them.

Unlike Medicaid- and Medicare-related benefits, OAA-funded nutrition programs do not have membership requirements. However, participation is usually limited to individuals who are 60 years of age or older.

How to access: Look up your local AAA and contact them directly to learn more about their nutrition programs.

Final Thoughts

While all of these options are a good place to start when looking for home-delivered meals for seniors, keep in mind the duration and quantity of the meals can vary from program to program. For example, Medicare Advantage post-discharge and chronic care programs vary from health plan to health plan with regard to how many meals they provide and for what period of time. Additionally, there are typically guidelines around how often a member can access this benefit within the same year.

Keep in mind, there are no laws prohibiting participation in more than one program. For example, an individual can receive meals through both their health plan and local AAA, even if the programs have different eligibility requirements and terms.

Likewise, individuals who receive SNAP assistance can also receive meals through a health plan or AAA at the same time without penalty – the receipt of meals does not impact the level of assistance an individual may receive through SNAP or their health plan. This is good to know since, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, other government programs like unemployment payments can diminish the level of assistance an individual can receive through SNAP.

If you or a loved one would like more information about home-delivered meal programs offered through health plans or local community organizations, contact us today.

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