Using Nutrition as Medicine

PHILADELPHIA — Feliciano Pagan stood at his front door when the MANNA food truck pulled up to his two-story brick row home.
Pagan, 48, greeted the driver with a smile as he carried in two large bags filled with frozen dinners and fresh fruit that would last a week. Among the goods were chicken fajitas with brown rice and zucchini; chicken dumplings, carrots and beets; and sweet-and-sour pork chops with turkey noodle soup.
These medically tailored meals — all with limited salt and carbohydrates — are designed to keep Pagan, who has congestive heart failure, out of the hospital. Health Partners Plans, the nonprofit company that runs the Medicaid health plan Pagan belongs to, is betting on it.
Since 2015, Health Partners has joined a small group of insurers around the country to offer some members specially designed meals to improve their health. The company paid the full cost for 560,000 meals to be delivered to more than 2,100 of its members with various conditions such as diabetesheart disease and kidney failure.
The Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (MANNA), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that provides medically appropriate food for people with serious illnesses, prepares and delivers the meals.
The service covers three meals a day and typically lasts six weeks, although members can renew for two additional six-week cycles. It also provides nutritional counseling. MANNA provides the meals to everyone in the household to help family members support patients who need to change bad diets. Health Partners, which serves Philadelphia and nearby counties, said its investment is paying off.
With the kick-start that comes from receiving these free meals and continued counseling to shop better and prepare healthy meals, the members are better able to control their diabetes, use the hospital less and reduce their medical costs, according to the health plan.
“We wanted to see how this would work out and we are quite pleased that with the cooperation of our members we did see a dramatic reduction in their costs … and improved outcomes,” said William George, CEO of Health Partners.
George would not disclose how much his health plan pays for meals, although one industry expert said it costs less than $15 a day per member.
The growing number of “food as medicine” programs nationally are aimed at improving nutritionamong adults with serious illnesses to help them heal, recover from medical procedures and control chronic diseases.
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