Does Medicare Provide a Grocery Benefit?
Q: I keep seeing ads for a Medicare grocery benefit. How do I qualify?
A: We keep seeing the ads too. Unfortunately, Medicare does not provide money for groceries, but some Medicare Advantage plans might do so. Medicare Advantage plans are run by private insurers, and they have the leeway to offer additional benefits to their plan enrollees. The number of Medicare Advantage plans that do offer a grocery benefit, however, is very limited. Most often the plans are only located in certain areas of the country and offer groceries as a supplemental benefit to certain individuals with low incomes and those with certain serious health conditions.
Older Americans are often affected by multiple diet-related chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and acid reflux. In fact, many older patients are frequently discharged from the hospital, or leave doctor visits, with a pile of dietary instructions.
Often the bigger challenge is not knowing which foods to choose and how to prepare meals that heal. That assumes one can afford fresh fruits and vegetables to begin with since better quality, healthy foods often cost the most.
One of the most common comments we hear is, “I’m down to one meal a day!” Do not give up. There’s growing interest in the use of healthy foods to treat certain chronic and diet-related diseases, and whether insurance companies will cover “medically tailored foods.” Some states are rolling out test programs that will provide people with healthy foods in the hopes that improved nutrition will potentially lower healthcare costs for low-income beneficiaries as well as state and federal Medicare and Medicaid budgets. These initiatives come as food prices continue to remain stubbornly high even while the prices of other consumer goods and services have started to come down.
Prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables is the hard part for hospitals and doctors. The two biggest barriers that need to be addressed appear to be the lack of good research demonstrating what specific conditions best respond to food, and regulatory requirements since traditional Medicare is barred from covering food.
To learn more about food programs in your area, we suggest you contact your Area Agency on Aging, the local department of Social Services, or the Medicaid office. A helpful tool that can pre-screen you for food assistance and provide local contact information is www.BenefitsCheckUp.org.
Sources: “Can Food Cure High Medical Bills? Pilot Food As Medicine Programs Aim To Prove Just That,” Medora Lee, USA TODAY, February 15, 2023.