Payers Consumer / Employer,

How Highmark Health Is Battling Food Insecurity

Highmark Health has been launching a series of initiatives to support the “food as medicine” movement, including a program that provides some West Virginia residents with debit cards to purchase healthy food at Dollar General stores.

The healthcare industry is gaining a better understanding that there is a strong connection between nutrition and health. Uber Health added healthy grocery delivery services to its platform, the Rockefeller Foundation is funding two produce prescription pilot programs for veterans and Kaiser Permanente launched a medically-tailored meal program.

Also participating in the “food as medicine” movement is Highmark Health, which launched a medically-tailored meal pilot program in December, and is forming food initiatives in 14 different communities. Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of social determinants of health for Highmark Health, gave MedCity News an update on its food as medicine efforts last week during the AHIP 2023 conference in Portland.

“Diet-related chronic conditions are driving a lot of our healthcare expenditures, so that’s why we decided as an organization to focus on food as medicine,” Abebe said. “I think there is a tremendous opportunity to educate both our members, our patients, but even our providers who I don’t think have a strong background and understanding of the relationship between food and overall health and wellbeing. What we’re trying to do as an organization is to develop a robust comprehensive strategy around food as medicine to address both acute food insecurity needs, but also think about nutrition education.”

Highmark Health has identified 14 “priority communities” across the four states the company functions in: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia. These communities were identified based on social vulnerability, chronic disease prevalence and Highmark membership density, Abebe said. The company is receiving community input from different stakeholders about what the unique gaps are in each community, and then launching programs tailored to those communities’ needs.

The most recent initiative launched in one of these communities is the Healthy Neighborhood pilot in West Virginia, which was announced this month. The $1.5 million pilot is in partnership with Vandalia Health Network, Marshall Health, Mountain Health Network, InComm Healthcare and Dollar General. It provides eligible West Virginia residents with debit cards that they can use exclusively at Dollar General stores to purchase nutritious foods.

“Dollar General is investing significantly in refrigeration and stocking healthier food items because they want to become more of a health and wellness destination. … If you look at West Virginia, a full service grocery store may be 20-30 miles away from our members’ homes, but there’s a Dollar General right down the road,” Abebe stated.

It follows another initiative launched in April in Buffalo, New York. In partnership with food and nutrition nonprofit Buffalo Go Green, Highmark Health created the Highmark Mobile Market, which offers fresh produce to community members in need.

Highmark Health also launched a medically-tailored meal program in December, which provides 1,000 eligible Highmark Health members with two meals a day, along with coaching and social work. It’s a six-month program, with the option to extend for another six months if the services are still needed. If the program proves successful, Abebe said he thinks it should be expanded.

For other payers looking to launch food as medicine initiatives, Abebe said they’re best done in partnership with other stakeholders. In addition, it’s good to get “into the weeds” with the programs and have a more hands-on approach, rather than merely providing grants.

“You need to really be able to connect it to your business,” he said. “What is your business transformation strategy? … We focus on food as medicine, but it’s not disconnected from the healthcare system, it’s actually integrated.”

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