Meal delivery linked to fewer emergency room visits, lower monthly medical costs

woman cutting vegetables
A new study shows medically tailored meals for dual eligible beneficiaries can bring down healthcare costs. (Anchiy/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Delivering meals, especially meals tailored to recipients’ medical needs, can reduce the use of costly health services among people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid.

With medical issues and poverty making them dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, this population is at high risk of experiencing food insecurity and its associated costs, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.

The study looked at 133 beneficiaries of the Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA) in Massachusetts who participated in one of two meal delivery programs from Jan. 1, 2014 through Jan. 1, 2016, compared with 1,002 matched controls who did not receive meals.

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Researchers found that people who received medically tailored meals or nontailored food had fewer visits to the emergency department and decreased ambulance transportation usage than nonparticipants. Both meal delivery programs were associated with lower medical spending.

For the medically tailored meals program, the estimated average monthly medical spending per person was $843 vs. $1,413 for nonparticipants. The average per person monthly cost for participants in the nontailored food program was $1,007, vs. $1,163 for nonparticipants.

People who are sicker and disabled could benefit from medically tailored meals programs, according to researchers, while nontailored food programs could benefit older, relatively healthy people.

These meal delivery programs are helping people feel better and reducing healthcare costs across the country. For example, a home-delivery meal program in Toledo, Ohio, has led to early intervention so that people can get the medical services they need in a timely fashion.

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“Look for things that change in the clients’ pattern,” the director of Mobile Meals of Toledo, Carolyn Fox, told WNWO. “For example, Mr. Smith is always at his door waiting for his meals every day. When you go to his door, he’s not there, his drapes are drawn, papers there, mail there. Something is wrong.”

Recognizing the financial and health consequences of food insecurity, healthcare organizations are doing their part to provide more healthy eating options in their communities as part of population health efforts. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, Geisinger Health System’s Fresh Food Pharmacy gives participants access to at least 10 healthy meals per week and connects them with local farmers and farmers’ markets for fresh, nutritious foods.