Highmark Health Launches Pilot Program Providing Medically-tailored Meals

Highmark Health is piloting a new program that addresses food insecurity and will provide eligible members with medically-tailored meals, the company announced Monday.

The six-month pilot program aims to support 1,000 Highmark insurance members with certain chronic health conditions and who are at high-risk of food insecurity. Eligible chronic conditions include chronic kidney disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension and diabetes. These members will receive two medically-tailored meals a day, as well as coaching and social work to help them live a healthier lifestyle.

In addition to addressing food insecurity, Highmark’s program will work to reduce other areas of health inequity as well, said Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of social determinants of health at the company.

“When we engage the member and realize that they’re food insecure, we’re also assessing for other health-related social needs,” Abebe said in an interview. “This person could have transportation issues or be dealing with housing issues or domestic violence. That presents another opportunity for our social worker to have a conversation with a member.”

As the program goes on, Highmark will track members’ level of engagement, as well as clinical measurements like blood sugar and emergency room visits. Tracy Saula, senior vice president of product and health experience at Highmark Health, hopes the program will not only improve members’ health, but lower healthcare costs as well.

“We believe that it could easily result in obviously improved health, which is the most important,” Saula said in an interview. “But also a reduction in total cost of care, somewhere between 10-16% … Our goal in this is to identify, is this the kind of benefit we could provide longer term?”

There is a strong link between nutrition and health, research shows. People who are food insecure have a higher risk of chronic diseases, increased hospitalizations, higher cost of care and mental health challenges, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Additionally, a recent study published in JAMA Network Open found that if payers provided medically-tailored meals to patients with diet-sensitive limitations, they could save $13.6 billion annually.

The food as medicine movement has gained momentum recently, particularly after the White House held a conference in September about food insecurity. Abebe said Highmark’s new program is in alignment with the White House’s efforts. Other healthcare organizations addressing food insecurity and nutrition include Kaiser Permanente and Geisinger.

Saula said she hopes Highmark’s initiatives can ultimately prove the benefit of programs that address food insecurity so that more healthcare players get involved.

“If you want to start to truly think about food as medicine and treat it as such — which means insurers paying for it the same way an insurer would pay for a diabetic medicine — they need proof that it works,” Saula said.

Photo: vgajic, Getty Images

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