Health insurers are adding food, meal delivery programs to help people get and stay healthy
Amid the COVID pandemic, more of them are paying for temporary meal deliveries. And some are teaching people how to cook and eat healthier foods.
When COVID-19 first swarmed the United States, one health insurer called some customers with a question: Do you have enough to eat?
Oscar Health wanted to know whether they had adequate food for the next couple of weeks and how they planned to stay stocked up while hunkering down at home.
“We’ve seen time and again the lack of good and nutritional food causes members to get readmitted” to hospitals, said Ananth Lalithakumar, an executive with Oscar Health.
Food has become a bigger focus for health insurers as they look to expand their coverage beyond the doctor’s office. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, more are paying for temporary meal deliveries. And some are teaching people how to cook and eat healthier foods.
Benefits experts say insurers and policymakers are getting used to treating food as a form of medicine that can help people reduce blood sugar or blood pressure and stay out of hospitals.
“People are finally getting comfortable with the idea that everybody saves money when you prevent certain things from happening or somebody’s condition from worsening,” said Andrew Shea, a senior vice president with the online insurance broker eHealth.
This push is still relatively small and happening mostly with government-funded programs like Medicaid or Medicare Advantage, privately run versions of the government’s health program for people 65 or older or with disabilities. But some businesses that offer coverage to their workers also are becoming interested.
Medicaid programs in several states are testing or developing food coverage. Next year, Medicare will start testing meal program vouchers for patients with malnutrition as part of a broader look at improving care and reducing costs.
Nearly 7 million people were enrolled last year in a Medicare Advantage plan that offered a meal benefit, according to the consulting firm Avalere Health — more than double the total from 2018.
Insurers commonly cover temporary meal deliveries so patients have something to eat when they return from the hospital. For years, many also have paid for meals tailored to patients with conditions such as diabetes.
But now insurers and other bill-payers are looking a broader approaches as the coronavirus pandemic sends millions to food banks or food pantries.
The Medicare Advantage specialist Humana started giving some low-income customers debit cards with $25 or $50 on them to help buy healthy food. The insurer also is testing meal deliveries in the second half of each month — that’s when money from government food programs can run low. Research shows that diabetes patients wind up making more emergency room visits then, said Dr. Andrew Renda, a Humana executive.
“It may be because they’re still taking their medications, but they don’t have enough food, and so their blood sugar goes crazy, and then they end up in the hospital,” he said.
The Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem connected Medicare Advantage customer Kim Bischoff with a nutritionist after she asked for help losing weight. The 43-year-old Napoleon, Ohio, resident had lost more than 100 pounds about 11 years ago but was gaining weight again.
The nutritionist helped wean Bischoff from a keto diet largely centered on meats and cheeses. The insurer also arranged for temporary food deliveries so she could try healthy foods like rice noodles, almonds and dried fruits.
Bischoff said she lost only a few pounds but was able to stop taking blood pressure and thyroid medications because her health improved.
“I learned that a little bit of weight gain isn’t a huge deal, but the quality of my health is,” she said.
These programs typically last a few weeks or months and often focus on people with a medical condition or low incomes who have a hard time getting nutritious food.
But Indianapolis-based Preventia Group is starting food deliveries for some employers that want to improve the eating habits of people under their health plans. People who sign up work with a health coach to learn about nutrition. Then, they can begin short-term deliveries of meals or bulk boxes of food and recipes to try. The employer covers the cost.
It’s not just about hunger or a lack of good food, said Susan Rider, Preventia’s chief operating officer. They’re also educating people about nutritious food and how to prepare it.
A 2019 study of Massachusetts residents with medical conditions found that those who received meals tailored to their conditions had fewer hospital admissions and were the cause of less health care spending.
A lack of healthy food “is very clearly associated with poor health, so we know we need to do something about it,” said Dr. Seth Berkowitz of the University of North Carolina, author of the study.