Doctors have a message for congressional lawmakers inching toward a compromise farm bill that would cut food stamps by nine billion dollars: It’s a terrible idea.
“If you’re interested in saving health care costs, the dumbest thing you can do is cut nutrition,” Dr. Deborah Frank of Boston Medical Center explained in an interview with the Associated Press. “People don’t make the hunger-health connection.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers benefits to over 47 million Americans. But the benefit level has fallen to the point that recipients only get about $1.40 per person per meal, even though food stamps often constitute the entirety of a family’s food budget. Doctors and researchers say that additional cuts on the horizon could increase the incidence of medical problems stemming in part from food insecurity, particularly diabetes and its related conditions.
For instance, a 2013 study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that House Republican proposals to slash food stamps would increase national health costs for diabetes treatment by $15 billion over a decade. Those costs would disproportionately affect Medicaid, since the public insurance program for the poor — who are considerably more likely to have type 2 diabetes — covers an outsize portion of diabetes spending.
A separate study published this week in the journal Health Affairs illustrates the effect that food insecurity can have on poor Americans’ health in concrete terms. Researchers found that the number of poor Americans being admitted to the hospital because of hypoglycemia — a sharp drop in blood sugar that can be a complication for people with type 2 diabetes — rose by 27 percent in the last week of a month as compared to the first week, since these low-income individuals began to run out of money to spend on food. Wealthier Americans did not experience an analogous spike.
“These findings suggest that exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities,” concluded the study authors.
The food stamp cuts could be particularly harmful for low-income diabetics who live in red states refusing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Researchers from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that uninsured Americans with diabetes are significantly less likely to have a regular source of medical care, to have had a check-up in the past two years, to have access to urgent medical care, and pay almost ten times more out-of-pocket to treat their diabetes than diabetics with Medicaid coverage.
Many of the Republican-led states rejecting the Medicaid expansion have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the country — and the coming SNAP cuts could mean more of them ending up in the hospital without the means to pay for their treatment.