Free Food For Thought

In an effort to change behavior, the United Health Group’s company Optum will begin offering pre-paid debit cards starting in January 2021 so its members buy fresh, healthier foods from specific retailers. They aren’t looking to just provide food, however, but also to drive healthier behaviors, according to Deb Telon, director of UnitedHealth’s marketing and business development. She says the initiative is really “a roadmap to use other Optum services like nutritional counseling” to improve the “overall experience” for people with specific conditions. “Kits” for conditions like diabetes will include online resources and counseling through community partnerships, either through Optum or other businesses.

Other health plans are taking a slightly different approach to encourage healthy eating through education and changing behavior by covering membership in organizations such as Weight Watchers. MeridianComplete, for example, a Michigan-based health plan for those with Medicare or Medicaid, covers up to two 12-week sessions to help members lose weight and reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

This is just the latest in a wave of insurer efforts to address social determinants of health. The possibility of something like the cure-all chicken soup making its way onto medication formularies like other prescriptions is unlikely, but what is clear is that health interventions are becoming more stratified and more personalized, and include an element of trying to change member behavior, as these companies hope to deliver more impactful care. -LS


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