Home caregiver with senior adult woman, serving a meal

Seniors could get increased access to medically tailored meals under Medicare, and food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other dietary services under the Biden administration’s $8 billion effort to end hunger by the end of the decade. The administration unveiled its multipronged, public-private effort Wednesday at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.

The strategy paper released Wednesday supports legislation to create a pilot program to test medically tailored meals under Medicare fee-for-service. The pilot would be designed as a “food is medicine” intervention to treat seniors with diet-related health conditions and reduce food insecurity.

That could be a game-changer for many seniors, according to Catherine Macpherson, senior vice president of healthcare strategy and chief nutrition officer for Mom’s Meals, a national provider of home-delivered meals.

“Today, doctors are able to prescribe a drug to help someone better care for their diabetes, but they aren’t able to prescribe medically tailored meals and that’s kind of a first-line treatment,” Macpherson told McKnight’s Home Care Daily Pulse. 

The White House’s strategy paper offers other specific strategies to solve hunger for seniors. These include: AARP and AARP Foundation expanding research on older adults’ access to SNAP; Congress increasing funding for the Older American Act nutrition programs; bolstering the healthcare workforce and ensuring medical professionals receive nutrition education. 

Buy-in from insurers

A growing number of health insurers are recognizing the benefits of healthy eating. Last week, the Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation announced a $4.4 million project in Indiana that will provide low-income seniors with fresh fruits and vegetables. Medicare Advantage plans have been especially proactive in linking good eating to good health.

More than 879 plans currently offer food and produce as a nonmedical supplemental benefit, while another 445 offer extended meals following hospitalization, according to ATI Advisory.

“Food and health are inextricably connected,” Tyler Overstreet Cromer, principal of ATI’s Medicare innovation team, told McKnight’s Home Care Daily Pulse. “We view ‘food is medicine’ interventions as an opportunity to improve the health and well-being of Medicare beneficiaries, and we’re happy to see this focus in the White House’s strategy.” 

Building on Medicaid example

The medically tailored meals program builds on a Medicaid demonstration program that allows states to test Medicaid coverage of additional nutrition services and supports under Medicaid section 1115 demonstration projects. On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced two Medicaid pilot programs in Oregon and Massachusetts. These programs will test coverage for evidenced-based nutritional assistance and medically tailored meals, clinically-tailored housing supports, and other interventions for certain beneficiaries where there is a clinical need.

“This is an historic moment in our nation’s fight to end hunger and improve health equity, particularly in states like Oregon and Massachusetts” Becerra said in a statement. 

There is wide agreement in the medical community that good nutrition is central to healthy aging. Adults who eat a healthy diet have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not getting enough to eat can also exacerbate certain medical conditions. A recent University of Michigan study found nearly 40% of adults with cardiovascular disease were food-insecure.