‘Food is medicine:’ How more NC seniors on SNAP could lead to big Medicaid savings for taxpayers

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Enrolling more older North Carolinians in food stamps could save taxpayers more than $2,300 per person per year in health care costs, according to a study authored by a doctor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“Basically, at the end of the day, the takeaway is food is medicine,” said Erin Henderlight, a policy director at Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit that shared information with the researchers.

The study was published by the Annals of Internal Medicine and was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

It looked at more than 115,000 North Carolinians who were 65 and older from 2017-20, were enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid and were likely eligible for — but not participating in — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, referred to as SNAP.

“The motivation was really to see not only the SNAP effect on food insecurity, but might it improve their health?” said Dr. Seth Berkowitz, a primary care physician at UNC and the study’s lead author.

The study found the ones who did enroll were much less likely to face health problems that resulted in visits to hospitals, trips to emergency departments and long-term care admissions.

“Because those are expensive services, if you use them less, that tends to result in lower total health care expenditures,” Berkowitz said. “And that’s what we found.”

Fewer people needing hospital visits means less spending on Medicaid and other public health services. The study estimated a savings of $2,360 per person every year in North Carolina.

By comparison, USDA Food and Nutrition Service figures show the average SNAP benefit each year for households with seniors was $1,440.

“The question of saving money isn’t so important in and of itself. It’s whether people are healthier,” Berkowitz said. “And if people are healthier, and thus need less health care, that kind of saving money is good.”

But what is it about programs like SNAP that could keep people out of hospitals in the first place?

Berkowitz says it is evident in three ways.

SNAP makes healthier food more affordable. It helps to reduce a potential “tradeoff,” he said, such as possibly having to choose between paying for food or medicine. And it has a psychological effect of helping to alleviate the mental stress of food insecurity.

“It can address health in multiple ways,” he said. “And by making people healthier, if that results in reduced utilization of things like the hospital (or) the emergency department, that saves money in a good way.

“It’s not that SNAP is a cost-containment strategy,” he added. “It’s that it is helping to make people healthier. And when people are healthier, they just don’t need as much health care, which is great.”

But researchers point to one problem — not enough people were signed up for it.

Only about 5,000 of those in the study enrolled in SNAP. Just 34 percent of eligible seniors in North Carolina take part in the program.

Benefits Data Trust was used to reach out to some of those eligible people, with the nonprofit saying those it contacted were more than seven times more likely to enroll than those who weren’t.

“So if we can get people who are eligible for SNAP enrolled in SNAP, they can get access to those benefits. Then we can increase health care outcomes and decrease healthcare costs,” Henderlight said.

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