Opinion/Solutions: Doctors prescribe healthy meals to keep patients out of the hospital

Advocates say the idea could drive down medical costs – and save lives.
Rita Scanlon, 92, talks to a Meals on Wheels driver at her home in Rhode Island. A handful of states are gearing up to provide similar meals through Medicaid for people with diabetes, congestive heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
David Goldman The Associated Press

Credit: David Goldman The Associated Press

Credit: David Goldman The Associated Press

Rita Scanlon, 92, talks to a Meals on Wheels driver at her home in Rhode Island. A handful of states are gearing up to provide similar meals through Medicaid for people with diabetes, congestive heart disease and other chronic illnesses. David Goldman The Associated Press

For more than 50 years, Meals on Wheels had been delivering healthy meals to thousands of older adults in Portland, Ore.

Then, a local hospital asked the group whether it could cook similar meals for patients leaving the hospital after acute bouts of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

The group signed on with a Portland hospital five years ago and later agreed to provide meals for two others in the area. Data from the first hospital showed that patients with diabetes, congestive heart diseases and other chronic illnesses who received what are known as medically tailored meals were half as likely to be admitted to the hospital compared with those who didn’t receive meals, and the total cost of their care was substantially lower.

While medically tailored meals prescribed by hospital dieticians are still only a small fraction of the more than 8,000 meals the Portland nonprofit delivers daily, that could change.

The federal government recently approved Oregon’s request to modify its Medicaid program, the joint federal-state health insurance program for people with low incomes.

In the past decade, about a dozen states have cobbled together Medicaid and other funding to offer medically tailored meals and other nutrition programs on a limited basis. But none has made nutrition services available to substantial numbers of patients, as new efforts in several states would do.

Oregon’s $1.1 billion, five-year program will be available for youth with special needs and people experiencing homelessness. Along with housing and other social supports, the program will offer three medically tailored meals per day for up to six months for people with, or at risk of, diet-related illnesses.

Massachusetts also received federal approval under a wide-ranging $67 billion, five-year Medicaid waiver to provide food vouchers and medically tailored meals, as well as housing for children, pregnant women and women who have given birth in the past 12 months.

The Massachusetts waiver is groundbreaking because it allows Medicaid to pay for meals for the entire family — not just the patient, said Katie Garfield, director of whole person care at Harvard Law School’s Center for Law and Policy Innovation.

It’s well known that parents who receive medically tailored meals will share their food with children and older adults living in the household, reducing the effectiveness of those meals at healing the patient’s chronic condition, Garfield said.

“Allowing Medicaid to supply meals for the entire family,” she said, “is a major step forward.”

Food is medicine

A regular diet of fruits, vegetables and other nutritious food has long been shown to stave off and treat chronic illnesses and promote healing after surgery. And unlike pharmaceuticals, nutritious food does not have side effects.

It’s also well established that a deficit of nourishing food is a major cause of health disparities among people with low incomes and people of color, who suffer disproportionately from heart diseases, diabetes and other deadly illnesses.

Local nonprofit groups have been providing healthy meals and reporting improved health outcomes since the mid-1980s, when groups in New York and San Francisco began providing meals for HIV patients to boost weight gain and help manage their symptoms.

But with few exceptions, Medicaid, which covers nearly 90 million people, has failed to allow large-scale coverage of healthy meals as a way of preventing and managing chronic disease.

A handful of states are working to change that – and they’re counting on big savings in their health care budgets in the process.

In addition to Oregon and Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington are among the states that have experimented with a variety of Medicaid programs to help residents get the meals they need to prevent and treat diet-related diseases.

As part of a national strategy recently announced at a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the Biden administration has vowed to work with Congress to provide funding for medically tailored meals under Medicare.

A reduction in medical costs

A major driver of health care costs, chronic diseases account for 81% of all hospital admissions, 91% of all prescriptions and 76% of all doctor’s visits, according to figures cited by several leading medical groups.

More than half of Americans suffer from at least one diet-related chronic disease.

Research compiled by the Food is Medicine Coalition, a research and advocacy group, shows that only six months of dietary interventions such as medically tailored meals can reduce overall medical costs by 16%, or $220 per month per patient.

According to the research, only 1 in 10 adults are meeting Department of Agriculture dietary standards for fruits and vegetables. That’s primarily because millions of people either can’t afford healthy food or live in neighborhoods where it isn’t available.

It makes sense that using medically tailored meals to avoid costly prescription drugs and frequent emergency department visits would save millions in health care spending, said Alissa Wassung, executive director of the Food is Medicine Coalition.

But despite the mounting evidence, only a tiny fraction of those who could benefit from food assistance receive it, advocates say.

In addition to meals, some states have encouraged local health care providers to write fruit and vegetable prescriptions for diet-related conditions, providing vouchers physicians can give patients to purchase the food they need.

Other states contract with local nonprofits to deliver fruit and vegetable boxes to families, along with instructions on preparing healthy meals.

But a missing link, said Harvard’s Garfield, is a health care infrastructure that includes dietary screening procedures, diagnosis and billing codes and staff protocols for prescribing diet interventions.

Once that’s established, she said, food interventions could become as commonplace as prescribing medications or performing surgeries to treat chronic conditions.

Back in Oregon, Meals on Wheels People is standing ready to cook and deliver thousands more medically tailored meals every day.

About the Solutions Journalism Network

Each week, as part of our solutions-oriented focus, we partner with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues. This week’s stories come from other sources.