When COVID-19 first flooded the United States, a health insurer called some customers asking: Do you have enough to eat?
Oscar Health wanted to know if people would have enough to eat for the next few weeks and how they planned to stock up at home.
“We have seen time and time again that the lack of good and nutritional food leads to members being re-admitted to hospitals,” said Oscar manager Ananth Lalithakumar.
Grocery has become a bigger focus for health insurers as they seek to expand their coverage beyond care in a doctor’s office. Other plans pay for temporary food deliveries and some teach people how to cook and eat healthier foods.
According to social benefits experts, insurers and policy makers are increasingly used to treating food as a form of medicine that can help patients lower blood sugar or pressure and stay away from expensive hospitals.
“People are finally starting to feel comfortable with the idea that everyone saves money by preventing things from happening or someone’s condition from getting worse,” said Andrew Shea, senior vice president of online insurance broker eHealth.
This advance is still relatively small and is mostly taking place in government-funded programs such as Medicaid or Medicare Advantage, the privately run versions of the government health program for people 65 years of age or older or with disabilities. But some employers who offer coverage for their employees are also increasingly interested.
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Medicaid programs in several states are testing or developing food coverage. In the next year, Medicare will begin testing coupons for meal programs for patients with malnutrition to improve care and reduce costs.
Nearly 7 million people were enrolled on a Medicare Advantage plan last year, which research by consultancy Avalere Health found offered some sort of food benefit. That is more than twice as much as from 2018.
Insurers usually cover temporary food deliveries so that patients have something to eat when they return from hospital. And for a number of years now, many have also paid for meals tailored to patients with conditions like diabetes.
But now insurers and other bill payers are taking a more nuanced approach. This is because the coronavirus pandemic is causing millions of Americans to seek help from local grocery banks or food pantries.
For example, Oscar Health found that nearly 3 in 10 of its Medicare Advantage customers had food supply issues at the beginning of the pandemic, so arranged temporary food deliveries from a local store at no cost to the recipient.
Medicare Advantage specialist Humana started giving some customers with low-income debit cards $ 25 or $ 50 to help them purchase healthy groceries.
The insurer is also testing the food deliveries in the second half of the month. Then the money from government nutrition programs can run out. Research shows that diabetes patients then make more emergency rooms, said Humana manager Dr. Andrew Renda.
“They may still be on their medication but not have enough to eat. And so their blood sugar goes crazy and they end up in the hospital,” he said.
David Berwick of Somerville, Massachusetts credits a meal delivery program with improving his blood sugar and wishes he could stick to it. The 64-year-old has diabetes and started the program last year at the suggestion of his doctor. The Medicaid MassHealth program covered this.
Berwick said the nonprofit Community Servings provided him with dry cereals and prepackaged meals to warm up on a weekly basis. This included soups and turkey meatloaf, which Berwick described as “absolutely delicious”.
“These are not things that I would certainly do on my own,” he said. “It was a gift, it was a real privilege.”
These programs typically last a few weeks or months and are often aimed at customers with an illness or low income who are struggling to obtain nutritious foods. However, you are not limited to these groups.
Indianapolis-based Preventia Group is starting supplying groceries to some employers looking to improve the eating habits of those covered by their health plans. People who sign up work with a health coach to learn more about nutrition.
Then they can either start with short term deliveries of meals or large amounts of food and recipes to try. The employer pays the costs.
It’s not just about hunger or a lack of good food, said Susan Rider, chief operating officer. They also educate people about what healthy, nutritious food is and how to prepare it.
A 2019 study of Massachusetts residents with similar medical conditions found that those who received meals tailored for their condition had fewer hospitalizations and generated fewer health care expenses than those who did not.
The study author Dr. Seth Berkowitz of the University of North Carolina noted that these meals are just one method of treating food or nutritional problems. He said there is much more to be learned about “which interventions work in which situations and for whom”.
Lack of healthy eating “is clearly linked to poor health, so we know we need to do something about it,” said Berkowitz.