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Paying for Prescription Formula: "Thinking Outside the Can" Part 2



How can people who depend on prescription formula for nutrition find assistance paying for it?  The first article of this series provided financial resources for medical nutrition for children with special needs.  Unfortunately, there are fewer programs available for adults in need of medical nutrition supplements.  The purpose of this article is to discuss the barriers encountered by adults in need of nutritional supplements, the role of federal and state health care programs in Medical Food/Enteral Nutrition Therapy/Medically Necessary Supplemental Nutrition, and potential sources of assistance from public and private sources.




According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, a Medical Food is  is "a food which is formulated to be consumed or administered enterally (via the digestive system through the mouth or a feeding tube) under the supervision of a physician and which is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease or condition for which distinctive nutritional requirements, based on recognized scientific principles, are established by medical evaluation."

As mentioned in Part 1, at least 37 states have passed laws mandating health insurance coverage for Medical Food that has been ordered by a physician for the treatment of inborn errors of metabolism.  Unfortunately, only a handful of these states extend benefits to adults with metabolic illnesses.  Some adults may qualify for special programs based on their specific illness, career, history of military service, or state of residence..Two websites that offer benefit eligibility searches are the Federal Government Comprehensive Benefit Search  and State Assistance Program Database.  



Medicare is a federally funded health insurance program for:   

  • people age 65 or older 
  • people under age 65 with certain disabilities
  • people of all ages with End-Stage Renal Disease (permanent kidney failure requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant).

Medicare consists of:

Medicare Part A, also known as Hospital Insurance. Helps cover inpatient care hospitals, hospice and skilled nursing facilities and some home health care.  Medicare Part A covers the administration of oral nutrition when ordered by a physician within the setting of a hospital, rehab, skilled nursing facility, or as part of comfort care under Hospice Benefits.  For patients who are receiving care anywhere for the length of stay Inpatient, acute care hospital Medicare Part A benefits will cover specialized formula, administered orally or via feeding tube, for the length of stay while inpatient in an acute care hospital.  In all other situations mentioned above, Medicare Part A will cover services for a maximum of 100 consecutive days.  After that, the patient will need to pay out-of-pocket for specialized formula, or arrange for coverage through Medicare Part B, Medicaid, or other sources.


Medicare Part B, also known as Medical Insurance.  Medicare Part B helps cover outpatient care, such as office and clinic visits and procedures or tests performed there, physical and occupational therapy, and durable medical equipment, such as walkers and manual wheelchairs. Medicare Part B provides coverage for enteral nutrition when administered through a feeding tube in the homecare setting, or after the first 100 day Part A benefit in a skilled nursing facility. There are medical necessity criteria that must be met and providers like durable medical equipment companies are familiar with the billing and documentation process. Medicare does not provide coverage for nutritional products when orally consumed in the outpatient or homecare setting.  In most cases, Medicare Part B pays a percentage of health care costs, usually 80%, and the patient is responsible for paying the remainder out of pocket or through supplemental health care programs.


Medicare Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage or Medicare Managed Care Plans.  These supplemental insurance plans are offered through commercial insurance companies. Medicare Managed Care plans frequently offer "wrap-around" services to provide additional coverage for benefits provided by Medicare Part B.  People with complex health care needs may find that Medicare A and B either do not provide all of the medical support they require, or they need to decline medically necessary services because they are unable to afford out-of-pocket expenses. Medicare Managed Care Special Needs Plans may provide extended benefits, including oral Medically Necessary Supplemental Nutrition.  Medicare Managed Care Plan availability, specific benefits, patient cost, eligibility, and enrollment procedures are highly variable.  For more information, please consult, the official US government site for Medicare. 


Medicare Part D, also known as Prescription Drug Coverage.  Medicare Prescription Drug Plans provide coverage for both brand-name and generic prescription drugs.  Patients who receive Medicare A and B are offered a list of available plans, and can choose the plan that best suits their medication needs.  Most Managed Care Plans include prescription medication benefits, so patients do not usually need to pay for a separate prescription drug plan.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Medicare Part D does not cover enteral or parenteral nutrition.


Medicare Supplemental Coverage: Medigap (Medicare Supplement Insurance)  A Medigap policy is private health insurance that is designed to help pay health care costs that Medicare doesn't cover, such as coinsurance, co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket costs for non-covered medical expenses.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   



Medicaid is a health care program that is federally subsidized but managed by each individual state.  The financial guidelines vary widely, for basic eligibility information check here:  Medicaid is the number one source of payment for elemental formulas for children and adults with health care needs. Many families are caught in the precarious situation of earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid or SSI but not enough to meet their family's needs.  Medicaid generally covers specialized formulas and dietary supplements when ordered by a physician by submitting a letter of medical necessity. 



What Are the Differences Between Medicare and Medicaid?




Private insurances are often able to choose whether or not to coverage a specific medical treatment, procedure, diagnostic test, or medication for cost-containment purposes, and prescription formulas are often left to the family to pay out-of-pocket.  Still, it doesn't hurt to appeal your insurance's decision.  The major formula companies offer templates for letters of medical necessity that can be downloaded and submitted by your physician. For general insurance reimbursement tips, click here.


Some non-profit organizations offer lists of donated supplies and medical foods, which are available on a first come, first served basis:


Abbott Patient Assistance Program:

Nestle Patient Assistance Program:

Prescription discount cards:

Prescription cards and coupon program:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


The following description is from

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the program formerly known as food stamps. It is a federal nutrition program that helps you stretch your food budget and buy healthy food.  SNAP benefits can be used to purchase food at grocery stores, convenience stores, and some farmers' markets and co-op food programs.  SNAP benefits are given to you each month on a plastic card called an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card, which works like a debit card. Paper coupons are no longer used.  SNAP is a nutrition program. It is not a welfare cash assistance program (which is called TAFDC). You do not have to be receiving TAFDC to get SNAP -- these are separate programs.  SNAP is a federal entitlement program. This means anyone who is eligible will receive benefits. You will not be taking away benefits from someone else if you apply.

Families with an elderly or disabled household member are eligible for more services than other families.  Some of these benefits include:

·         Families paying more than $35 out of pocket each month for medical expenses may be able to deduct the expenses from your monthly income.  This will make the family eligible for more SNAP benefits.  You can find more information about deductible medical expenses here

o    Here is a checklist families can use to keep track of out of pocket medical expenses: checklist

  • For most, not all, applicants, your assets (savings, investments) will not be counted. Under no circumstances will the house you are living in or your IRA be counted as an asset.
  • You do not have to comply with work requirements.
  • You can designate someone you trust to be an Authorized Representative, which would enable them to use your SNAP card to purchase food for you. Download the Authorized Representative form.
  • If your household consists only of an elderly or disabled person with a stable income (Social Security, for example) you are "certified" for SNAP for two years. This means you will not need to update your information until 24 months after you apply.
  • If everyone in your household is elderly and an SSI recipient, you can apply at your regional Social Security office.

·         Most households have to meet both a monthly gross income test and a monthly net income test to be eligible for SNAP benefits. However, households in which all members are receiving SSI or TANF are considered to be eligible based on income. Other households with one or more elderly members only have to meet the net income test. Net income is gross income minus certain deductions.

Can SNAP benefits be used to purchase Medical Foods and Medically Necessary Nutrition Supplements?

Yes, in many cases.  According to the USDA, SNAP benefits can be used toward the purchase of products that fit the following description:


 When considering the eligibility of vitamins and supplements, power bars, energy drinks and other branded products, the primary determinant is the type of product label chosen by the manufacturer to conform to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines:


·         Items that carry a nutrition facts label are eligible foods

·         Items that carry a supplement facts label are classified by the FDA as supplements, and are therefore not eligible.


The Food and Nutrition Service does not have authority to determine whether branded products have been appropriately labeled as supplements and cannot answer inquiries relative to why particular branded products carry a supplement facts label. Such questions/concerns must be directed to the product manufacturer. Product manufacturers label their products based on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling guidelines and are in the best position to provide labeling rationale.





Please follow the guidance above to determine whether a specific branded product is eligible.

·         The nutrition supplements must be available for purchase from a SNAP-approved food vendor

·         The nutrition supplements must be available for purchase by the general public, without a physician's prescription, but the patient must be purchasing the supplement because a doctor recommended it. (see below)

·         The Food and Nutrition Service - SNAP posted list of determinations is now limited to generic (non-brand specific) products.


Many nutrition supplements can be obtained without a prescription.  If the patient is unable to receive nutrition supplements from federal, state, or private health insurance benefits, the USDA's SNAP program may be used to purchase certain supplements from a grocery store.  In order for the patient to claim these supplements as a medical expense, they must obtain a Letter of Medical Necessity from a physician.  See for assistance.

For more information, please review the USDA's Nutrition Supplement Eligibility Determination Board at


Most communities offer private food pantries, food banks, Meals on Wheels programs, and other services.  The USDA website lists the major food banks, food pantries, and nutrition programs operating in each state:  

The National 2-1-1 Information and Referral Search can help you locate any other nutrition programs offered in your community. 


Two kinds of tax-exempt accounts help people save money for health expenses, and may help you cover out-of-pocket supplemental nutrition costs.  The flexible spending account is a benefit offered by some employers.  It allows you to set aside pretax dollars each pay period for health-related expenses. The health savings account is for people who participate in high-deductible health plans (also called catastrophic health plans.)   The plan beneficiary, not an employer, establishes this kind of account. For more information, see Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Publication 969, Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans(PDF 1.11MB).


Medically necessary supplemental nutrition expenses are tax deductible.  For more information, see IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses (PDF 1.28MB).  Also useful to simplify tax filing is the Medical Expense Worksheet Summary which provides a single location to summarize expenses in all areas, for all family members.



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