Success in managing and delivering healthcare to members today comes down to maximizing efficiencies. Especially in a value-based and competitive healthcare consumer market, reducing unnecessary member care costs is essential.
Health plans and healthcare providers use several strategies and tools to control costs, including better management of electronic health records, artificially intelligent predictive analytics to identify members who are at increased risk of health complications or hospital readmission, and care quality improvements measured through HEDIS scores or other objective performance standards. Filling care gaps – whether at the member or provider level – is a key competitive arena where plans and providers fight to squeeze out every possible advantage.
In this post, we’ll cover how something as simple as promoting better member nutrition through food security leads to better member health while reducing the upward cost pressure on health plans and healthcare providers.
The Most Cost-Efficient Medicine is Preventive Medicine
“Don’t do that!”
That was the uniform medical advice of an actor playing an “old country doctor” in the 1960s entertainment program “Hee-Haw,” as he answered patients’ complaints about feeling pain or discomfort when engaged in activity. The line was meant to draw a laugh, but in a way the make-believe doctor was on to something: preventive medicine is the most economical and practical way to manage healthcare.
That same doctor, if pressed on how to cut back on healthcare delivery costs, probably would have replied, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And he would again be expressing a larger medical truth in simple words, because of the importance of nutrition in preventive healthcare.
Food Insecurity is Health Insecurity
It is tempting to think that the most significant food-related American health problem today is over-eating and its negative effects. But if we are serious about reducing diet-related healthcare issues, we cannot overlook the opposite problem that many Americans face: poor health because they don’t have enough access to proper nutrition, a condition we call “food insecurity.”
Food insecurity describes a household that is either unable to get enough food to meet the needs of all its members, or experiences uncertainty about whether enough food is available. The reasons for food insecurity can be lack of money to buy food, or in some cases the existence of “food deserts” where sufficient nutritious food is unavailable because of a lack of access to grocery stores and supermarkets. Other contributing factors can include disabilities, lack of employment, lack of transportation, and social barriers based on race, ethnicity, or gender.
The most recent 2019 US Department of Agriculture statistics on food insecurity reveal the extent of its impact on Americans:
- About 10 percent of American households have experienced food insecurity. This is more than 13 million households and more than 35 million people.
- Almost 3 of every 10 households with children headed by a single mother are food-insecure.
- Black non-Hispanic households are nearly twice as likely to experience food insecurity as the national average.
- Although the adults in food-insecure households will often deprive themselves to feed their children, nonetheless more than 5 million children are still affected, with more than 360,000 children experiencing “very low” food security.
Food Insecurity Means Poorer Member Health
A lack of proper nutrition makes members susceptible to health problems that make it more likely they will need medical attention. For adults, increased rates of chronic diseases and conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps ironically obesity are traceable at least in part to food insecurity. For children, in addition to increased chance of obesity the risks include physical and mental developmental problems.
Health Plans and Healthcare Providers Can Help Reduce Food Insecurity
Food insecurity is not a new problem. Multiple federal and state government programs exist specifically to combat it, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
In addition to government-provided assistance, many private food banks, pantries, and meal delivery programs also assist the food-insecure.
But how is it that, with all of these relief programs available, food insecurity remains a problem? One reason is that many people who can benefit from these programs are not aware of them. Another reason is that some people who are food-insecure do not self-identify as such and do not reach out for help. It is in closing these awareness gaps where health plans and healthcare providers can step up, and some already are. What follows are three ways that plans and providers can contribute to food security for their members.
Screening Members for Food Insecurity
Doctors, nurses and clinicians are in a good position to look for the effects of food insecurity in the members they see, including members who are unaware or unsure if they need assistance. By reaching out to these members, healthcare providers can directly impact the number of members who are food insecure because they are simply ignorant that they have this problem.
Increasing Member Resource Awareness
Nutritional assistance programs are like any other resource: how much they benefit people depends on how much and how well they are used. In addition to increasing member awareness of the problem of food insecurity, by partnering with third-party vendors to connect food-insecure members with local food resources health plans and providers can help convert that awareness into action.
Helping Members Directly
Some healthcare providers take an active role in guiding members to better food security. One method is to coordinate with local non-profit organizations to give members “food prescriptions” that include vouchers for members to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and produce items in addition to providing them with non-perishable food items and food delivery services.
“An Ounce of Prevention…”
Members who are food secure are more likely to enjoy good health than members who are not. They require fewer healthcare services, and their healthcare consumption is more preventive than restorative. They have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and pose less risk of need to be readmitted to facility-based care after being discharged.
In our increasingly value-based healthcare compensation model, it is imperative for health plans and healthcare providers to keep unnecessary healthcare expenditures to a minimum. Plans and providers that understand the benefits of food security for their members can take steps, on their own and together with governmental, non-profit organizations and private vendors, to help members to stay healthier and to use fewer healthcare services. This benefits member quality of life while helping to control healthcare costs and improve member healthcare outcomes.