Since food is medicine, it should be covered by health insurance.

As a doctor, I can’t write a prescription for an apple a day. But recent research suggests they should.

In fact, doing so could prevent about 290,000 cardiac events and potentially save about $40 billion in healthcare costs for people with diabetes. And these are just two of the many groups that could benefit from easy access to healthy foods.

Sadly, while insurance plans cover thousands of dollars in prescription drugs, they don’t cover something far more affordable and effective: access to patients struggling to afford healthy food. yeah. If our country is serious about improving health and cutting costs, we need to start treating food like medicine.

Many of us know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, but for some, even finding and buying those foods is a huge barrier. Tens of millions of Americans live in “food deserts” with limited access to supermarkets and healthy food.

Food deserts, most common in rural, urban, and low-income areas, typically correlate with higher prevalence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes than in other parts of the United States. Inflation exacerbates the problem. With food prices rising fivefold at a historic rate over the past few years, more Americans are struggling to keep food on the table. Even more so with health foods, which tend to be more expensive.

Food deserts and inflation are creating a preventable national health crisis. A lack of healthy food choices leads to an increase in chronic diseases, which in turn leads to higher morbidity and mortality. People die sooner and their quality of life deteriorates in that short period of time. This will increase healthcare costs nationwide. About 90% of the $4.1 trillion annually spent on healthcare in the United States is devoted to chronic diseases.

Fortunately, there are ways to stop this crisis. The number of “food as medicine” programs is increasing. 1115 Through the Medicaid Waiver Program, many states have initiated pilot programs that address the social determinants of health—the nonmedical factors that contribute to our overall health. Diet is one of the factors.

Several state-based programs are experimenting with allowing doctors to create health food prescriptions for high-risk patients. So far, these programs have shown promising results. A meta-analysis examining the Food as Medicine pilot program found that his fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 0.8 servings per day. The community-based trial program increased confidence in healthy eating choices and healthy food preparation, and reduced barriers to healthy eating.

At my hospital, through the Immigration Health and Cancer Disparity Service, we are implementing a food program to overcome outcomes disparities. The premise is simple. Worrying about what to eat next makes it less likely that you will receive proper treatment for your cancer. We never want anyone to have to decide whether to support a family or pay for the next cycle of treatment. Launched in 2011, the program has delivered more than 400,000 of her meals to high-risk cancer patients in the community.

These pilot programs demonstrate the need for more widespread implementation of such measures. Both commercial and government-funded insurance plans must include provisions to provide food to food-insecure patients. As a physician, I prefer to avoid prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs and instead prescribe a “DASH” diet that emphasizes vegetables, legumes, and nuts. This can lower your systolic blood pressure by 11 points.

For insurers, compensating for healthy foods will be a big driver as they already seek to encourage healthy habits to reduce costs and medical complications, such as offering discounts on fitness programs. I don’t think so. Encouraging healthy eating through financial incentives can be a very cost-effective way to improve health outcomes.

This does not mean that all food is free or compensated. This kind of insurance coverage fills a gap for those who cannot afford healthy food. The food-as-medicine program will work directly with the supplemental nutrition assistance program to help feed Americans in need, and will become even more important as restrictions on SNAP beneficiaries increase. right.

It’s hard to see any downside to such a measure that would improve Americans’ health and save money at the same time. The initial cost of implementing a food-medicine program through governments and insurance companies will be recouped many fold in future health care savings.

Diet and nutrition, which are so important to our health and development, often cost a fraction of the cost of other medical interventions. New cholesterol-lowering drugs can cost upwards of $5,000 a year. Other weight loss drugs such as Wegovy and Ozempic may cost more.

By reducing weight, improving glycemic control, and improving blood cholesterol levels, these drugs may be of value to the healthcare system because they can prevent more expensive medical care in the future. judged to be high.

If our insurance plans can cover these costs, why not do the same for much more affordable health foods? , is the most effective prescription for financial health.

Dr. Joshua A. Boudu He is a Neuro-Oncologist and Health Equity Researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project and Academy Health.

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