Some States Testing Out Medicaid Coverage for Healthy Food

Senior woman wearing winter coat chooses apples at the grocery store.Under a federal pilot program, a number of states are using Medicaid funds to cover healthy food costs for Medicaid recipients. Ultimately, the trial program seeks to determine whether nutrition support can help prevent and manage certain chronic illnesses related to diet.

The pilot program’s structure varies across different states, as do the criteria regarding which Medicaid recipients are eligible to take part. In some instances, Medicaid benefits may cover nutrition counseling, grocery store gift cards, “food prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables, and more.

‘Food as Medicine’

Diet-related chronic conditions are not uncommon in the United States. Today, more than 37 million Americans have diabetes. Nearly one in three adults is overweight. Poor nutrition has also been shown to lead to higher risks of heart disease, certain cancers, and other illnesses.

In the fall of 2022, the Biden administration issued a national strategy to address issues in hunger, nutrition, and healthIncluded in that document is information on the idea of expanding health insurance coverage for nutrition support and education.

Proponents of the pilot program point to the connections that research has made between nutrition and overall health. From their perspective, helping people make better food choices will positively affect the health care system as a whole over time.

One 2022 Tufts University study examined health outcomes for people with certain illnesses who received deliveries of healthy, medically tailored meals. The researchers estimated that establishing similar programs nationwide could prevent more than a million hospitalizations each year. In addition, they projected billions of dollars in savings for Medicaid and Medicare.

Others believe using Medicaid funding to support a “food as medicine” movement is unnecessary and will overload the program’s resources.

Which States Are Using Medicaid Funds to Cover Food?

In most states, Medicaid does not generally pay for groceries or meals. (Some Medicare Advantage plans do offer an allowance for groceries or delivery of meals.)

However, the following three states are currently putting the Medicaid for food program to the test:

  • Arkansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Oregon

California has also been running a program of its own, called CalAIM, since 2021. Through this program, health care providers can prescribe medically supportive meals to qualifying individuals. This includes people without reliable access to affordable, healthy food or who are restricted to a specific diet for medical reasons.

Five additional states are now seeking the go-ahead to participate in the pilot program. The following have requested federal waivers and are awaiting approval:

  • Delaware
  • Maine
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Washington

Awareness of Nutrition and Health Among Seniors

Research suggests that many older adults may not be familiar with the idea of nutrition being one way to improve health.

According to one poll, less than half of U.S. seniors say they feel knowledgeable about how nutrition connects to mental wellness. (In contrast, 80 percent of American adults ages 18 to 34 say they feel “very” or “somewhat” knowledgeable about this link.)

If you are not sure whether you qualify for Medicaid or you are interested in applying, contact your local Medicaid agency. You also may want to consult with an elder law attorney who can advise you on a plan for your future. Find a qualified elder law attorney in your area today.