Access to nutritious food improves health. With all the complexity in today's healthcare system, it's good to get back to these basics. While this common sense statement may seem like a no brainer, until recently there was a surprising lack of peer reviewed research backing it up.

However, that may be about to change. A recent study demonstrated that access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for food stamps) results in fewer hospital and nursing home admissions.

Researchers studied the entire population of 69,000 Maryland seniors who are on both Medicaid and Medicare (known as "dual eligibles").  Individual-level medical claims data were cross-matched against SNAP enrollment data, and used to analyze the impact of SNAP on healthcare utilization and costs.

The results were remarkable, if not completely surprising.  Access to SNAP reduced a senior's likelihood of admission into a hospital by 14% and reduced the likelihood of entrance into a nursing home by 23 percent.  The study also found that the more SNAP dollars seniors received for healthy food, the lower the odds they would have to spend additional days in a hospital and nursing home.

Because connecting seniors to SNAP results in lower healthcare utilization and better health, it also leads to healthcare savings.  The researchers estimated that connecting dual eligibles to SNAP delivers $2,100 in annual healthcare savings per senior enrolled.

Released by Benefits Data Trust ("BDT"), a Philadelphia nonprofit organization, this study is the first using cross-sector research to demonstrate that access to SNAP can reduce healthcare spending and improve health outcomes. More detailed results of this research are available in Benefits Data Trust's Policy Brief.

While previous studies have shown that access to better nutrition leads to lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, BDT's study was the first to connect SNAP participation directly to a lessened need for health care and improved health outcomes.

The lesson is clear; to keep our aging population healthy, seniors need access to nutritious healthy food. Investing in health upstream by helping vulnerable older individuals meet their basic needs, such as food, and addressing key determinants of health results in lower healthcare utilization and better health. But currently, only 42 percent of low-income seniors receive the SNAP benefits they are eligible for.

In a time of seemingly endless partisan debates about health care reform and less certainty about the direction of the health care system, maybe it's time to turn our attention to something we should all agree on; vulnerable older individuals should be able to eat.  Meeting this need will be good news for health outcomes and health budgets.


Matthew Maughan, JD, is the policy manager at Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit organization committed to transforming how individuals in need access public benefits and services.