Study: SNAP food program pays off in lower health bills

Thursday, September 28, 2017

When Nebraska was debating whether to provide prenatal care for undocumented immigrants, we saw the issue of “pay me now” or “pay me (a lot) later.”

The idea was that it is cheaper to try to help such women deliver healthy babies than to take care of sick babies — who are U.S. citizens by dint of being born here — in our emergency rooms.

Americans take care of people who are truly hurting — our response to the ongoing hurricane recovery efforts proves that — that’s just the way we are.

But how do we do it most efficiently, which was the central question in the prenatal debate, which resulted in the Legislature overriding Gov. Dave Heineman’s veto of such funding in 2012?

Now comes evidence that we can save on healthcare bills by trying to make sure poor Americans have enough to eat.

A Massachusetts General Hospital study of recipients of food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, indicates that SNAP participants spend roughly $1,400 less on health care than those who are not.

Researcher Dr. Seth Berkowitz said the study confirmed previous studies that found food insecurity is associated with higher health care costs, and the results are significant because SNAP is not designed as a health care program.

SNAP recipients are allowed to buy certain food products, generally healthier choices, and about one in seven Americans is involved.

People who don’t follow a healthy diet are more prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes, and poor adults may have to choose between buying food and their medications.

Researchers used data from two national health surveys, covering 4,400 low-income adults, and while initial results found little difference between SNAP and non-SNAP participants, health benefits did begin to appear once additional health issues and disability were taken into account.

Berkowitz admitted the study doesn’t establish cause-and-effect, but still feels “receiving SNAP benefits could make it easier to follow recommended diets to manage chronic illness, free up resources that would otherwise be spent on food for other disease management activities, and reduce stress over concerns such as where one’s next meal is coming from.”

Certainly receiving SNAP benefits is no cure for those who make bad choices and lack work ethic, and many factors must fall into place for one to become a productive member of society.

Healthy eating and lifestyles can take generations to establish and can disappear much more quickly.

Growing demand for food from local programs shows that the need is real. The latest study helps make the case that drastic cuts to SNAP or other programs could prove to be far more costly than the money saved.

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