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Free meals for Florida's frail, elderly at risk

A program funded by WellCare Health Plans that provides free meals to about 6,000 frail, elderly or disabled in Florida and New York may be in jeopardy.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has challenged Tampa-based WellCare as to whether a meal giveaway should be a covered health benefit, and it's unclear if the program will be continued in 2009.

After originally planning to terminate the benefit on May 31, both WellCare and Medicare gave at least a temporary reprieve Tuesday afternoon. In response to a reporter's calls, a spokeswoman for WellCare said eligible members of its special-needs Medicare Advantage plans will continue to receive meals through the end of the year.

The benefit, which is available in 40 counties in Florida and four in New York, provides home delivery of 10 frozen meals a month to people with special nutritional needs. The cost to the government is about $5.50 per meal.

Although people receiving the free meals were unaware of the imminent threat to the program, it had been a major worry for Debra Shade, president and chief executive of Neighborly Care Network in St. Petersburg. She said she was told last week by WellCare that Medicare had issued a "cease-and-desist" order declaring the benefit illegal and terminating it at the end of May.

Shade's nonprofit social service agency helped develop WellCare's nutrition program three years ago and has been administering it through a $4-million contract with the managed care company. The loss of the contract, equivalent to about one-fifth of Neighborly's total revenue, would have meant laying off 20 employees as well as leaving 6,000 people unfed.

"That's great news," Shade said when told of the program's reprieve. "These clients are the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick."

The free-meal benefit, which is also offered through special needs plans at Humana, still faces an uncertain future. Managed care companies have to resubmit benefit packages for Medicare annually, and WellCare would not say whether the program would be continued.

While WellCare officials had suggested members could be shifted to other publicly funded programs like Meals on Wheels if the benefit is discontinued, Shade said that's unlikely.

"We run the Meals on Wheels plan in Pinellas County," she said of the popular program funded by federal and state money. "It's got a waiting list of 610."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

Free meals for Florida's frail, elderly at risk 05/13/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2008 12:05am]
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