Prescribing healthy food in Medicare and Medicaid could improve health

In a new study, researchers found prescribing healthy food in Medicare/Medicaid is cost-effective and could improve health.

The research was conducted by a team from Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus.

Healthy food prescriptions are increasingly being considered in private health insurance programs, and the new 2018 Farm Bill includes a $25 million Produce Prescription Program to further evaluate this approach.

Medicare and Medicaid are the two largest healthcare programs in the U.S., together covering one in three Americans and accounting for 1 in every 4 dollars in the entire federal budget.

The study modeled the health and economic effects of healthy food prescriptions in Medicare and Medicaid.

They estimated the economic and health benefits that would accrue if 30% of the cost of healthy food purchases in supermarkets and grocery stores were covered through Medicare and Medicaid, through an electronic debit card.

Two scenarios were modeled: 30% coverage of fruit and vegetable purchases; and 30 percent coverage of purchases of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, seafood, and plant-based oils.

They found that health insurance coverage to offset the cost of healthy food for Medicare and/or Medicaid participants would be highly cost-effective after five years and improve health outcomes.

Both of these programs would improve health and lower healthcare utilization. Over a lifetime of current beneficiaries, the fruit and vegetable incentive would prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular diseases (CVD) cases; while the broader healthy food incentive would prevent 3.28 million CVD cases and 120,000 diabetes cases.

Both the fruit and vegetable incentive and the broader healthy food incentive were estimated to reduce healthcare utilization, with savings of $39.7 billion and $100.2 billion, respectively.

The researchers say that encouraging people to eat healthy foods in Medicare and Medicaid — healthy food prescriptions — could be as or more cost-effective as other common interventions, such as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol.

The lead author of the study is Yujin Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

The study is published in PLOS Medicine.

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