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August 5, 2014 

Innovative Policy Provides Opportunity for Preventative Care

WASHINGTON (Aug. 04, 2014) – Hospitals and health insurers help Americans return to health once they become sick, but what if they could prevent illnesses instead of just treating them? A factsheet by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future shows how an innovative policy in the Farm Bill will allow hospitals and health insurers to increase prevention efforts by partnering with organizations to increase access to healthy food.

“In the past, policymakers built a brick wall between food policy and health policy, as though diets don’t affect health outcomes,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, agricultural economist with UCS and co-author of the factsheet. “With the passage of the Farm Bill, new policies are breaking down the wall so food and health policy can work together – and save a lot of money in the process.”

“This is a real opportunity to connect local food policy groups, such as food policy councils, with the health care sector,” said Anne Palmer, MAIA, co-author of the factsheet and a program director with The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “The providers are on the front lines and have a deep understanding of people’s health challenges, many of them related to diet."

According to the factsheet, “Hospitals and Healthy Food,” half of U.S. adults have one or more chronic conditions, including heart disease, obesity and cancer. Treating these conditions is expensive, which explains why 18 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is spent on health care.

These chronic conditions are largely preventable through healthier diet. On average, Americans currently eat only about half the amounts of fruits and vegetables recommended by federal guidelines. An additional challenge is that healthy food is not accessible or affordable for many low-income Americans, putting a life-saving diet out of reach.

“If we want to drive down overwhelming health care costs, we need to start thinking creatively about increasing access to healthy fruits and vegetables,” said O’Hara. “And for once the Farm Bill is ahead of the game, introducing a grant program allowing hospitals and health insurers to support healthy food to prevent diet-related diseases.”

While hospitals and health insurers have historically focused exclusively on treatment, these institutions can now be part of prevention efforts thanks to the newly established Food Insecurity Nutrition Program (FINI). FINI, due to be launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in coming months, will provide grants to organizations seeking to increase low-income consumers’ purchases of fruits and vegetables. The markets can then use these grants to increase the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for shoppers buying fruits and vegetables.

To apply for FINI, applicants will be required to secure matching funding from other sources. For hospitals, health centers, and insurers aiming to reduce diet-related disease in their communities, partnering with healthy food organizations to apply for FINI funds is a great place to start. Nonprofit hospitals are required under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) to use “community benefit” expenditures to address health challenges in their communities. Prior to ACA, most community benefit expenditures were spent on subsidized patient care. However, since the number of uninsured patients is anticipated to decline under the ACA, supporting a FINI application will be a strategic way to address diet-related challenges and meet the community benefit requirement.

“FINI’s pioneering approach demonstrates that food policy, health policy, and the nation’s economic prosperity are all interconnected,” said O’Hara. “The starting point is increasing access to healthy produce for individuals of all budgets, and the end goal is preventing illness and reducing health care costs.”

Palmer suggests, “Our hope is to see every local food policy group inviting the hospitals in their area to participate in the process of identifying upstream policies that change the local food environment.”

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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