California Health Report: Can Chef-Made Meals Serve as Medicine? State’s Low-Income Insurance Aims to Find Out

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By: Ron Shinkman | July 26, 2018

On a recent morning northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Nick Cuccia turned his Volkswagen down a small alley. Cuccia, a retired editorial staffer for the Los Angeles Times, parked and unloaded a box from the trunk.

Inside was a week’s worth of chef-made meals for Jorge Marroquin, a 64-year-old retired factory worker who is in frail health. Marroquin is one of a handful of patients participating in a new state initiative that aims to keep low-income patients with congestive heart failure out of the hospital. Called “Food is Medicine,” the Los Angeles pilot program is operated by the local nonprofit Project Angel Food.

Headquartered in Hollywood, Project Angel Food received a $150,000 grant from the Medi-Cal health plan L.A. Care for startup purposes and will receive up to another $250,000 annually from the state to prepare meals for the program, according to Richard Ayoub, its executive director.

The three-year pilot project is being funded by the state of California to the tune of $6 million, with the intent of finding whether what is known as a “medically-tailored diet” can keep those with chronic illnesses out of the hospital.

In California, the overall hospital readmission rate for all patients was 14.5 percent in 2016. But among the Medi-Cal population, it’s 15.7 percent, according to data from the California Health and Human Services data portal. By comparison, the readmission rate for those with private insurance is 10.4 percent. Even before Medi-Cal coverage was dramatically expanded under the Affordable Care Act, readmissions were costing the program $10 billion a year.

Nationwide, 20 percent of patients with congestive heart failure are readmitted after a hospital discharge within 30 days, and half within six months.

The pilot project will focus on patients with congestive heart failure and is expected to serve about 1,000 Medi-Cal enrollees in all, whose hospital readmissions will be closely monitored. Aside from Project Angel Food, other pilot project participants include Project Open Hand in the Bay Area, the Ceres Community Project and Food For Thought in counties north of San Francisco, The Health Trust in Santa Clara County and Mama’s Kitchen in San Diego County.

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