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Addressing Food Insecurity Among Our Medicare Advantage Members

United By Blue employees packing groceries

Grocery bags are assembled to be delivered to Medicare Advantage members.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, do you remember how hard it was to find all the items on your grocery list — like pasta and toilet paper? Maybe you had to stand in line to enter your local supermarket. Or you were setting 3 a.m. alarms to order groceries online.

We all experienced the stress of navigating a global health emergency and supply chain disruptions, but some of us had a harder time than others accessing basic goods.

This is a story of neighbors helping neighbors, and of health equity in action.

Responding to a Clear Need

In spring 2020, the call center at Independence Blue Cross (Independence) started receiving a lot of unusual requests from our Medicare Advantage members. They weren’t asking how to pay a bill online, or if a doctor was in our network; they were asking how they could access food.

They told us that the physical demands of grocery shopping — standing in line to enter a store, fighting with other customers over the last pack of toilet paper — were challenging for them, especially those with chronic illnesses. Even navigating online delivery services was often a struggle for some members.

We realized we had to do something to respond to their needs, and do it quickly. So we decided to launch a grocery delivery program.

In part, the goal was for our members who were most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease to visit the grocery store less frequently and thus reduce their exposure risk. Given the social isolation that many faced, we also wanted these members to feel cared for — almost as if someone from Independence was giving them a warm hug.

How Our Collaboration With United By Blue Began

Searching for an organization to launch this grocery delivery program with Independence, we initially contacted various national big-box stores, as well as local nonprofits. But none of them could help because their services were already in such incredible demand.

Then we noticed that United By Blue, a small business in Old City Philadelphia, had turned its storefront into a grocery store. Originally filled with sustainable-lifestyle gear and merchandise, its shelves now held things like pasta, eggs, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and even toilet paper!

An insurer-lifestyle gear collaboration may seem unusual, but there was something about United by Blue’s unique response to the pandemic that made us want to explore the possibility. Thankfully, they felt similarly, and a new program was launched!

How It Worked

In two years of working with United By Blue, we have delivered more than 50,000 bags of groceries to Medicare Advantage members in our service area who met certain disease state criteria.

Each bag contained a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, pastries, butter, peanut butter, hummus, cookies, a face mask, toilet paper, paper towels, beans, eggs, milk, bacon, and (my personal favorite) quarts of homemade soup.

An assortment of grocery items distributed by United By Blue

A sample of the variety of foods and household items provided in a weekly grocery bag.

We tried to feature nutritious and comforting foods that might be enjoyed by people representing a large range of ethnic backgrounds and cuisine preferences, including fruits or vegetables that could serve as starter ingredients for many breakfast, lunch, or dinner dishes. The bulk of these ingredients came from 12 regional farms, ensuring their freshness and supporting local agriculture at the same time.

It was important to us that a wide variety of foods were included, both prepared meals and raw ingredients. We wanted members to have flexibility in how they ate the food or even shared it with their neighbors. And that’s exactly what happened!

A Win-Win-Win Situation

Through this unconventional collaboration between a large insurance company and local small business, we made life a little easier for people and made them feel cared for. At the same time we supported local agriculture, and were even able to employ close to 40 Philadelphia residents who had lost their jobs during the height of the pandemic. We made a real impact on several social determinants of health.

Health Equity: Walking the Walk

Health equity is achieved when everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Today, many institutions, including health insurance companies, are talking about how to advance health equity in our society.

But health equity can’t just be a buzz word. To put health equity into action, we must listen closely to the needs of our members and respond to them. And we must make sure services reach the people who might need them the most, whether based on clinical, sociodemographic, or other criteria.

And, finally, using local partners is always best. Tapping into the resources and assets of a community is really important to this kind of initiative’s success. It also helps advance our company goal of promoting economic equity.

It’s exciting developing programs at Independence where we get to truly listen and be empathetic to the needs of our members. It’s as much about being a good listener, and even a good neighbor, as it is about being a creative problem solver.

We’re grateful to Mike Cangi, co-founder of United By Blue, who played a critical role in helping us launch such an impactful program.

The grocery delivery service is provided by United By Blue, an independent company.

The benefits mentioned are a part of a special supplemental program for the chronically ill. Not all members qualify.

Y0041_HM_108895_2022 website last updated 6/29/22
Independence Blue Cross offers Medicare Advantage plans with a Medicare contract. Enrollment in Independence Medicare Advantage plans depends on contract renewal.

Independence Blue Cross offers products through its subsidiaries Independence Hospital Indemnity Plan, Keystone Health Plan East and QCC Insurance Company — independent licensees of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

Julia Weatherly

Julia Weatherly is a Lead Government Market Stars Program Analyst. She is a graduate from Amherst College and the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Public Health program. Julia is originally from Silver Spring, MD and spends her free time playing with her Great Pyrenees, Macy, cooking with her family, and exploring Philadelphia.