When individuals with complex health needs receive clinically appropriate, home-delivered meals for 13 weeks, their overall medical spend and emergency department use significantly decreased for the next six months, according to just-released results of a pilot program between Mom’s Meals and UPMC for You.
Program participants experienced a 36% decrease in the median total cost of care and a 31% decrease in emergency room use for a period of six months after the meal service ceased when compared against a control group, which had an 18% decrease and 17% decrease, respectively, due to pandemic-related decreases seen across health care. The program’s findings were presented at the Medicaid Health Plans of America Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Offering people healthy meals on a consistent basis is a cost-effective way to prevent a higher cost of care,” said Catherine Macpherson, MS, RD, senior vice president of healthcare strategy and chief nutrition officer for Mom’s Meals, a leading provider of medically tailored, home-delivered meals. “It also leads to better clinical outcomes and healthier patients, especially those with complex medical issues and food insecurity. These promising results will help to inform larger-scale programs in the future.”
UPMC for You targeted 100 members of UPMC Community Health Worker Impact Program or Community Team Program who did not need housing assistance but were chronically ill with a nutrition-sensitive condition, such as diabetes or heart disease. More than 50% of the participants also had a diagnosis of a serious and persistent mental illness.
The members received a weekly delivery of three meals per day for 13 weeks, between October 2019 and June 2020. Claims data for enrollees were evaluated against a comparison group of matched members who met food-insecurity criteria, a social determinant of health. Engagement in the program remained high, with 74% of those enrolled receiving meals for its duration.
“Emergency department use was one of the key outcomes we were interested in, as it is often a significant driver of the overall cost of care and a tremendous burden on members,” said Katie Domalakes, M.S.W., L.S.W., senior director of clinical affairs and program development, UPMC Health Plan.
“Our pilot program’s findings, supported by a growing body of research, shows that medically tailored meal programs appear to be associated with fewer emergency room visits and less overall medical spending,” Domalakes said. “If we invest in people—helping meet their basic needs such as providing food when they are hungry—it creates opportunities for health maintenance and member satisfaction.”
The pilot program occurred against the backdrop of COVID-19 restrictions, which resulted in lowered access to nonemergency medical care in 2020 and difficulty in quantifying medication adherence. Any future expansion of the program will measure visits to primary care providers, lab values and pharmacy costs as key performance indicators.