Prescribing medication is a common practice for doctors, but it's a prescription of a different sort that could lead to billions of dollars in savings.
A prescription for healthy food could not only improve patients' health but also save more than $100 billion in healthcare costs, according to a study published in the Public Library of Science.
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Such prescriptions can improve health outcomes for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and the findings showed that the predicted economic benefits would arise if 20 percent of the cost of supermarket fruits and vegetables were covered through Medicare and Medicaid -- dubbed the "F&V incentive."
Under an alternate scenario, the "healthy food incentive," 30 percent of the cost of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, plant-based oils and seafood would be covered.
Using a nationally representative data set from Medicare and Medicaid focusing on adults between 35 and 80, the authors said programs that cover fruit and vegetable costs would greatly lower the number of cases of chronic disease and would, in turn, reduce healthcare costs.
The F&V incentive would result in 1.93 million cardiovascular disease ailments prevented, and $39.7 billion saved in healthcare costs. The healthy food initiative would prevent 3.28 million cardiovascular events and save as much as $100.2 billion in healthcare costs.
If the numbers are accurate, that means the program would be as cost effective, or more, than preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol.
Since food subsidies and other policy costs run $122.6 billion and $210.4 billion respectively, that makes the programs highly cost effective. Medical interventions are generally considered cost effective if they cost less than $150,000 per quality-adjusted life-year gained, and highly cost effective if lower than $50,000 per QALY gained.
The F&V incentive had incremental costs of $18,184 per QALY, while the healthy good initiative had incremental costs of $13,194 per QALY.
The health benefits would be greater in the Medicare population, the authors said, due to its larger size compared to Medicaid and dual-eligible populations. Also, Medicare and dual-eligible beneficiaries tend to be older, which means the programs would yield larger absolute reductions in adverse health events -- and larger subsequent savings.
The findings echo those of a June 2018 study suggesting that improving the quality of the average American's diet could substantially reduce costs associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other major health problems.
Increasing adherence to healthy dietary patterns even by 20 percent could save more than $20 billion in direct and indirect costs, according to the research.