A new kind of healthcare startup wants health insurers to pay for meal kits and groceries for food insecure seniors

  • Project Well, a startup taking a nutritional approach to chronic disease, raised $2 million in February.
  • The startup plans to target the booming Medicare Advantage market.
  • It works with food vendors and dietitians to get patients to eat healthier and manage conditions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Throughout her career, Lauren Driscoll has made caring for older adults a priority.

After college, she went to work at a high school in Japan, a country where older people are given higher social status. Her grandmother also served as inspiration for her work, which began when Driscoll pursued a master’s in public health at Columbia University in the 1990s.

Driscoll is a veteran of the 1993 Clinton Health Task Force, where she helped craft healthcare reform work. During her time at Oxford Health Plans (now owned by UnitedHealth Group), and Leavitt Partners, Driscoll has kept an eye on how Medicare, the health insurance for adults 65 and older, has transformed over the last three decades.

“Older adults don’t necessarily get the respect and empathy they deserve in our country,” she told Insider. 

Now, Driscoll has started Project Well, a startup that helps provide food for seniors as a way to supplement the medical care they’re receiving. Project Well said it had raised $2 million in funding in late February in a round led by agricultural tech firm S2G Ventures and senior healthcare-focused Primetime Partners.

Founded in 2019, the startup plans to use a regulatory tweak in Medicare Advantage, the private arm of the federal Medicare program that provides insurance for people 65 and older that allows for members to get supplemental benefits including food, produce, and longer-term provision of fully prepared meals.

In the process, Project Well intends to combat food insecurity, or the lack of convenient access to nutritious foods. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s research service, 11% of American households were food insecure. 

Working with local and national food vendors, as well as registered dietitians, Project Well connects Medicare Advantage plan members to insurance-covered nutrition plans that treat healthcare cost-intensive illnesses that can be improved by changes in diet. Members pay no additional costs for the meals or groceries delivered to their homes.

“Our food solution is personalized to work for a person’s life,” Driscoll said. For now, Project Well is paid on a participant per month basis, but will charge more on over time to insurers as they prove their work is effective.

How Project Well works

Project Well is currently working with two health insurers across the Midwest.

That includes a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota to provide nutritious food to pregnant BIPOC women among its membership and a pilot program with the second insurer that Driscoll declined to comment more on.

Project Well’s program works like this: A patient recovering from being hospitalized for congestive heart failure might receive prepared meals via delivery. Another with earlier-stage cardiovascular disease would start with prepared meal kits and progress to healthy food boxes with recipes. Project Well’s dietitians also take an individual’s cultural preferences and life circumstances into account as well.

The startup works with companies like Philadelphia-based Performance Kitchen and San Francisco-based Sunbasket to provide the meals and meal kits.

“We’re moving the individual along a continuum of taking responsibility for a healthier diet,” Driscoll said. Eventually, Project Well intends for patients to take full control of their lifestyle-based disease intervention over the six to 12 months their program lasts.

A shift toward paying for how well patients are cared for is driving interest in nutrition

Driscoll said that what Project Well is doing is peripheral to what insurance companies have typically done: pay for medical care based on how much care is delivered Although major insurers might offer members nutritious plans like Humana’s Well Dine program, she said nutrition-based lifestyle intervention is largely outside the wheelhouse of major insurers.

The industrywide shift toward paying for how well patients are cared for, and insurers’ general unfamiliarity with how to implement it is why she believes Project Well is well-prepared to implement a “food is medicine” approach to chronic disease.

“The cost of food will be just a fraction of the hospital stays and emergency department visits that we’re avoiding,” Driscoll said. A 2018 Health Affairs study showed that tailored meals can reduce emergency room visits by 70% and hospital admissions by 52%. Primetime Partners investor Abby Levy cited those statistics as rationale for backing Project Well. 

Looking back on her Clinton-era policy work and tenure at Oxford Health Plans, now a part of UnitedHealth Group, Driscoll said she’s pleased the healthcare industry has finally started to incentivize programs targeting nutrition, food insecurity, and transportation.

“I didn’t think it would take as long as it’s taken, but the train has clearly left the station,” she said. 

“Digital

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