New paper connects SNAP eligibility with fewer doctor visits

Doctor shows patient screen with information

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves 13 percent of the U.S. population at a cost of around $70 billion. That price tag has made the program, formerly called the Food Stamp Program, a frequent target for critics of federal spending.

Taking away food assistance would save less money, however, if the former recipients used more federally funded medical care. According to research from Chloe East and Andrew Friedson of the University of Colorado Denver, that’s just what’s happening.

In a new working paper, East and Friedson find that being eligible for SNAP for a year made people less likely to visit the doctor multiple times. Single women, in particular, are less likely to report being unable to get medical care because of cost.

The working paper, “An Apple a Day? Adult Food Stamp Eligibility and Health Care Utilization among Immigrants,” is part of the Upjohn Institute’s Early Career Research Awards program.

In 1996, a federal act cut off SNAP benefits for most noncitizen immigrants. State and federal laws restored these benefits gradually between 1998 and 2003.  The authors used data from the National Health Interview Survey to compare people across states and over time based on their eligibility for SNAP.

They found that a year of SNAP eligibility makes people 14 percent less likely to visit the doctor more than once in a year. Single women were 20 percent less likely to visit the doctor, and more likely to be able to afford mental health and dental care.

As 44 percent of noncitizen SNAP recipients were also covered by Medicaid, a publicly funded health care system, increases in medical costs could blunt any savings from reduced public spending on food assistance. East and Friedson found that providing SNAP benefits reduces health care benefits by $9 per person, or at least 4 percent of the cost of SNAP benefits per person.