Health Plans Try a New Prescription: Nutritious Food

Posted on Thursday, January 24, 2019

The idea of food as being more than just “fuel” for the human body is gaining traction as medical professionals, scientists, and even insurers recognize that food is also medicine that helps prevent -- and even treat -- disease.

A snapshot of Americans’ medical conditions underscores the need for better nutrition to improve health and combat disease, especially for seniors, patients recovering from hospital stays, and individuals living with chronic illness.

· According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an unhealthy diet ranked first on a list of 17 leading risk factors for death in the United States in 2016. That means poor nutrition is more dangerous than smoking, using drugs, or leading a sedentary lifestyle.

· The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 29 million Americans have diabetes. Another 86 million American adults have prediabetes, which means they’re at risk for type 2 diabetes, a condition that’s largely preventable with a healthy diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.

· The American Diabetes Association estimates that in 2017 direct medical costs associated with diabetes totaled $237 billion, a big part of which is prescription drug costs paid for by Medicaid, Medicare D, and commercial clients.

· The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one of every six health care dollars is spent on cardiovascular disease.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Could consistent, convenient access to nutritious food and meals “prescribed” to treat and prevent disease help overcome those numbers? Across the country states, community programs, and health plans are saying “yes.” Innovative collaborations are launching programs that harness the power of nutrition to heal and protect.

· The Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan is partnering with health centers, insurers, and community groups to create nutrition interventions around the state including home delivered medically tailored meals to patients. While the program is still in development, research shows the approach works. A recent Health Affairs study of Massachusetts Medicaid recipients showed that those who received customized meals for six months had fewer ER visits, reduced hospital admissions, and lower health care spending than those who did not receive the meals.

· On the other coast, California is launching its own Medically Tailored Meals Pilot Program targeted at patients at risk for hospital readmissions or worsening outcomes due to congestive heart failure, cancer, renal failure, and other conditions. Leaders in California anticipate that the program will improve medical outcomes for patients and slash millions in costs for Medi-Cal, which offers low-cost or free health care coverage to some residents of California.

· Forward-thinking health plans are exploring new ways to support members with chronic disease through food as medicine benefits, including food pharmacies and delivering medically tailored meals to patients’ homes. The plans are getting support from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which has expanded the interpretation of supplemental “health-related benefits” for individuals in Medicare Advantage plans. That means that plans can be approved to provide nutrition benefits, home-delivered meals to improve access to healthy food. Companies such as Mom’s Meals NourishCare, which delivers refrigerated, condition-appropriate meals to homes nationwide, are potential partners in the process. For more information about Mom’s Meals NourishCare, click here.

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