Nov 2, 2023 - Health

Medicare plans that help seniors afford groceries surge

Data: ATI Advisory; Note: Data includes benefits offered through both Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill and Value-Based Insurance Design authority; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of Medicare Advantage plans offering seniors help affording groceries has skyrocketed in the few years since it's become easier for insurers to offer an expanded set of benefits.

Driving the news: Next year, 1,475 plans — about a quarter of the market — will offer certain eligible enrollees financial assistance for food and produce, according to an analysis from consulting firm ATI Advisory.

  • That's up from just 2% of plans offering the benefits five years ago.
  • CVS Health, through Aetna and other health plans, offers food benefits in 234 of its MA plans, the most of any insurer. Elevance Health and Humana also each offer the benefits in around 200 of their plans.

A growing body of evidence suggests helping patients access nutritious food can greatly benefit their health, and there's been a wave of investment in food-as-medicine programs. The Biden administration also supports the idea in state Medicaid programs.

Catch up quick: Since 2020, Medicare Advantage plans have been able to offer chronically ill enrollees extra supplemental benefits that aren't explicitly health care-related.

  • A separate initiative through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation also allows plans to offer nonmedical benefits like food assistance to low-income enrollees.

Reality check: There isn't great public data on how many Medicare Advantage enrollees actually use supplemental benefits that aren't offered through the traditional program.

  • But the more generous benefit offerings are seen as a major draw for Medicare Advantage, which costs taxpayers more than the traditional program.

Meanwhile, the number of plans covering services like meal delivery or meals provided in group settings will decrease by 27% to 336 plans next year, ATI found

  • Plans may be more interested in grocery benefits because they're easier to market and administer, said Bill Winfrey, a director at ATI Advisory.
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