In a new study, University of Colorado Denver researchers found when people have access to the food stamp program, they are less likely to frequent a physician for medical care. The findings were published in the American Journal of Health Economics by two CU Denver assistant professors of economics, Chloe East, Ph.D., and Andrew Friedson, Ph.D.
According to the study, which used changes in eligibility rules for documented immigrants in the 1990-2000s to learn about the program, those who were eligible for the food stamp program saw a reduction in health care utilization, specifically fewer office visits to physicians. The reductions were concentrated among locations with a higher prevalence of common communicable illnesses, such as cold or stomach illness. This suggests improved immune response could be an important mechanism.
“This is a program that has been a target of cuts in the Executive Budget—but if Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reduces health care utilization, a dollar of cuts will not be a dollar of budgetary savings as spending will likely ramp up in other programs such as Medicaid as former SNAP enrollees start to use more care,” says study co-author Andrew Friedson.
About 44 percent of food stamp recipients in the United States also receive health insurance coverage through the Medicaid program. Since there is a reduction in the need for medical treatment, government health care spending is reduced, and there’s an increase in savings for the individuals who pay out of pocket.
The researchers also calculated a rough (but likely lower bound) estimate of the magnitude of these savings, using the Colorado Medicaid payment for a 15-minute office visit: $64 in 2017, the most billed type of office visit. Based on that number, and the results of the study, providing food stamps reduces healthcare expenditures by $9 per enrolled person, or roughly 4% of the cost of the SNAP program.
“There have been many proposed cuts to the Food Stamp program in recent years, including reducing immigrants’ access further,” said study co-author Chloe East. “Our findings show there would be important costs of these cuts, to both individuals and the federal government, due to increased health care costs.”