February 23, 2023

A Vicious Circle: Food Insecurity Both a Cause and Effect of Higher Health Care Costs

More than 34 million people, including nine million children, lack reliable access to enough food to live active, healthy lives. Grinding inflation and rising health care costs are making life even more difficult for food-insecure Americans – undermining health and forcing risky tradeoffs between sustenance and medical care.

Factors contributing to food insecurity include poverty, a lack of affordable housing, racial discrimination, chronic health conditions and poor health care access.

Fueling Higher Costs

As a major social determinant of health, food insecurity contributes to chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. For children, food insecurity and chronic hunger create a higher risk of both developmental and behavioral health problems.

A 2019 study by Feeding America estimated that food insecurity costs the U.S. health care system an additional $53 billion annually by triggering or exacerbating chronic diseases and fueling emergency room visits, hospitalizations and readmissions.

It also results in higher family health care expenditures. A recent study found that food-insecure families paid about 20% – an average of $2,500 – more annually in health care costs than families with sufficient food.

Health care costs were higher regardless of the type of health care coverage the family had, from $1,855 more with public insurance and $2,107 more with private insurance to $3,531 more with no insurance or a mix of different coverages.

Choosing Between Food and Care

For many living near or below the poverty line, inflation’s steep rise over the past two years has led to increasingly difficult choices between food and health care. According to a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have skipped meals or did not buy groceries due to high inflation (including 28% of Gen Z and 23% of millennials).

At the same time, 14% have cancelled or postponed plans to see a medical specialist, 11% have skipped an annual physical, and 10% have not taken prescribed medication due to inflation. 

Minorities, Single Moms Disproportionately Affected

Food insecurity affects a little over 10% of U.S. households, according to the USDA. However, rates among single-mom households and Black and Hispanic households are substantially higher than the national average at 24%, 20% and 16%, respectively. Rates also differ significantly from state to state due to population characteristics, governmental policies and economic conditions. Between 2019 and 2021, food insecurity rates ranged from a low of 5.4% of households in New Hampshire to a high of 15.3% in Mississippi.

Food insecurity needs to be a bigger part of the conversation around health equity and efforts to decrease health disparities. As employers, purchasers and policymakers continue to navigate and combat ever-rising health care costs in this country, it’s important to remember that there are working Americans who must choose between putting food on the table and getting necessary medical care and prescription drugs.

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