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Medicare, Medicaid Benefits for Healthy Foods Would Slash Illnesses, Researchers Say

Study suggests they may be more effective than drugs, devices or surgeries

A woman pays for her produce at a farmer's market
THOMAS BARWICK/GETTY IMAGES

New research concludes that if Medicare and Medicaid were to expand benefits to cover some of the expense of healthier foods, it would prevent millions of illnesses. 

The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, was based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey data. It found that helping people pay for fruits, vegetables and other healthy food wouldn’t be cheap, but over time it might be more cost-effective than conventional treatments.

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“Poor nutrition is now the No. 1 cause of poor health in the U.S.,” Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and one of the study’s lead authors, said via email. “Our modeling suggests that healthy food prescriptions are as highly cost-effective as several other currently covered medical interventions, and far more cost-effective than many others. Healthy eating can provide a similar or bigger ‘bang for your buck’ than many fancy drugs, devices, or surgeries.”

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If Medicare and Medicaid provided beneficiaries with electronic debit cards to cover 30 percent of the cost of purchasing fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, it would prevent 1.93 million cases of cardiovascular disease over current beneficiaries’ life spans, researchers calculated.

If coverage were expanded to also include whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood and plant-based oils, as many as 3.28 million cases of cardiovascular disease could be prevented, as well as 120,000 cases of diabetes. 

Coverage of the full assortment of healthy foods would cost $210.4 billion over the beneficiaries’ lifetimes. But it would eliminate the need to spend $100.2 billion on conventional health care measures over that period, the researchers reported. 

“This approach could be as or more cost-effective as preventative drug treatments for high cholesterol or hypertension,” Yujin Lee, another study first author and a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts, said via email.

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