Imagine you’re living with type 2 diabetes. You’ve been trying to manage the condition for years with a typical medication. What if instead of metformin — a drug that works to lower sugar in the blood, — our doctor could simply prescribe meals tailored to your unique diagnosis that help control your blood sugar? A growing body of research indicates that such a shift in treatment, away from Big Pharma and towards common-sense treatment measures, is the future of U.S. health care.
For too long, the sickest patients in this country have been ill-served by a system that rewards doctors and insurers for the volume of services they render versus the quality of health outcomes their methods deliver. “Food Is Medicine” is a new approach that nonprofits, politicians, medical centers and nutrition experts are increasingly recommending as a low-cost, high-impact intervention that complements or supplants the use of expensive, pharmaceutical drugs.
In recognition of this growing medical consensus, the House Hunger Caucus recently launched a bipartisan Food is Medicine Working Group, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and other caucus members, the overarching goal of which is the better alignment of government nutrition policy and health outcomes.
Some of the group’s suggestions are policy initiatives including: incentivizing the purchase of healthy food, strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), adding medically tailored meals to the care plans of those fighting severe and chronic diseases and programs through which doctors can prescribe well-balanced diets.
Chronic diseases afflict 120 million Americans and account for an astounding 75 percent of U.S. healthcare spending. The need for creative solutions to help our nation’s highest need consumers of health services is significant. By taking steps like those outlined above by McGovern in January, we will be moving towards a more effective system for keeping people healthy and out of the doctor’s office. We will also be saving patients and insurers a lot of money.
The Hunger Caucus’ Food is Medicine Working Group meets this week to discuss the research, policy and practice of incorporating medically tailored meals into healthcare across the country.
Medically tailored meals (MTM) are meals tailored to the specific medical conditions, medications, side effects, allergies and other needs of a person living with severe or chronic illness. In this briefing, two recent studies will be discussed, both of which present compelling evidence that MTM can significantly improve health outcomes while curbing care costs. Both studies involved MTM provided by Food is Medicine Coalition nonprofit organizations. FIMC is a national alliance of MTM providers that I am proud to lead as the President & CEO of God’s Love We Deliver.
As a result of the findings published in a 2013 study, MANNA in Philadelphia partnered with Pennsylvania-based Medicaid managed care organization Health Partners Plans on an ongoing contract that resulted in the delivery of medically tailored meals to HPP members living with illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, malnutrition and kidney failure.
That study found a 28 percent reduction in inpatient hospitalization and 9 percent reduction in ED visits, when members received medically tailored meals. Another MTM provider, Community Servings in Boston, conducted a retrospective claims analysis study with Massachusetts General Hospital and determined a 16 percent net healthcare cost savings with MTM. Results were published in Health Affairs.
In each instance, medical diets helped keep ill patients out of the hospital, which is critically important considering that one can provide half a year’s worth of medically tailored meals for the cost of one night in a hospital.
God’s Love We Deliver has found similar results in people living with HIV and FIMC agency Project Open Hand in San Francisco demonstrated cost savings for patients with type 2 diabetes and increased adherence for people living with HIV.
The Food is Medicine Coalition strives for a positive continuation of the trend towards expanded healthcare access brought to this country by the Affordable Care Act close to a decade ago. The ACA allowed organizations focusing on the medically underprivileged, like those within the Food is Medicine Coalition, to work in a grassroots manner with regional Medicaid programs to implement additional benefits, like medically tailored food and nutrition, to high-need patients’ care plans.
The good sense of keeping a healthy diet shouldn’t be news to anyone. We sometimes lose sight, however, of how our basic everyday behaviors influence our long-term health. “Food Is Medicine” is more than a quaint cliché. It’s a proven, viable healthcare solution that must become a more central aspect to how we deal with an American epidemic of chronic illness.
Karen Pearl is the co-convener of the Food is Medicine Coalition and the president & CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, a provider of medically tailored meals. During her tenure, services at God’s Love have grown 150 percent, with 1.8 million meals cooked and home-delivered each year. Pearl also serves on the Public Policy Committee of AIDS United.