NGA: Don’t lock us out of healthy food benefit programs

NGA: Don’t lock us out of healthy food benefit programs

The National Grocers Association (NGA) has written a letter to the White House urging officials to re-think its position on supplemental health benefit cards — and what kinds of grocery stores shoppers are allowed to use them at.

Right now, those with supplemental health benefit cards — which contain a stipend for the purchase of healthy foods in grocery stores — can’t use the cards at independent grocery stores.

By excluding the independent segment from the program by denying them the technologies needed to process benefits, issuers, including specific private plans, Medicare Advantage plans, and some Medicaid plans with waivers, are restricting cardholders from shopping at their preferred outlets, Stephanie Johnson, vice president, government relations, for the Washington, DC-based NGA, said in the letter to Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

“As a result, millions of Americans who rely on independent grocers, many of whom are in rural and low-income areas, are locked out of the program,” Johnson wrote. “Consequently, independents are unable to serve the needs of their customers.”

The Medicare Grocery Benefit, also known as a Medicare Food Allowance or Health Foods Card, provides grocery funds for select plans.

Cardholders can only use the benefit for specific foods such as fruits and vegetables, fresh salad kits, dairy products, meat and seafood, frozen meals, soup, water, beans and healthy grains, cereals, and staples — including flour, sugar and spices, and nutrition bars.

Among the omitted items are chips, desserts, sodas, and alcohol. Users often receive a prepaid debit card or a coupon card that is reloaded monthly or quarterly.

Calling the exclusion of independent grocers a “rapidly developing problem in the delivery of private-sector programs aimed at improving health outcomes,” Johnson said that health insurers and payment solution providers have the capability of expanding program access to the independent segment.

She noted, however, that the parties “are not answering the calls of insured individuals and the independent supermarket industry to make benefits interoperable to the location where plan beneficiaries’ shop.”

The NGA is requesting that the White House mediate a solution between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), health insurance companies, technology payment companies, and the grocery sector.

“Industry participants have been told that these programs are exclusive only to the nation’s largest grocery chains and no viable solution is available for our industry segment,” Johnson said. “The result is harm to competition where our customers are forced to shop at our dominant chain competitors, even if they prefer their local grocery store.”

She added that independent grocers are already at a competitive disadvantage due to the lack of antitrust law enforcement, and “the exclusion from healthy benefit programs only widens the unlevel playing field between smaller independent grocers and large national food retail chains.”

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