Biden Administration Approves State Requests to Use Medicaid for Groceries
Medicaid recipients who find it hard to afford soaring food prices will soon get a boost thanks to a Biden administration decision to allow Medicaid benefits to be used for groceries in certain states.
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The administration has started approving state requests to use Medicaid to pay for food and nutritional counseling, the Wall Street Journal reported. The move comes amid broader policy discussions about whether “food as medicine” programs can lead to health benefits and lower costs.
It also comes during a period of soaring food prices that show few signs of letting up. Overall food prices in the United States rose 10.3% on an annual basis in January 2023, according to the latest inflation figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The food-at-home index climbed 11.3%.
Medicaid is not normally used for food purchases. Instead, it provides health coverage to millions of Americans, including eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities. The program is administered by states according to federal standards and funded jointly by states and the U.S. government.
The Medicaid-for-groceries initiative represents a departure of sorts from the usual way food is used as medicine, which typically involves delivering meals customized for specific medical needs to recently hospitalized patients. This often comes in the form of vouchers that let certain people buy healthy items such as fruits and vegetables, according to the WSJ.
Last fall, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved a test program that allowed Arkansas to spend up to $85 million in federal and state funds on health-related needs. These included nutrition counseling and healthy-meal preparation. Similar programs were previously approved for Oregon and Massachusetts.
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These types of nutrition-support programs are part of a bipartisan push by lawmakers, the U.S. government and health providers to help lower-income Americans gain more access to healthier food.
“This is something that is building momentum,” Rachel Nuzum, senior vice president for federal and state health policy at the Commonwealth Fund, told the WSJ.
But it’s not something that everyone supports. Some critics say that using Medicaid benefits to pay for food is unnecessary since low-income Americans already have access to government food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“This is really the first I’ve seen the federal government push food and air conditioners and other things as allowable. We already have the SNAP program,” Gary D. Alexander, head of the Medicaid and Health Safety Net Initiative for Paragon Health Institute, told the WSJ. “It seems like it’s blurring the lines.”
But others have a more favorable view of such initiatives — as long as they succeed in improving the health of Americans.
“There needs to be a bigger emphasis on how do we start encouraging people to make good healthy choices,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R., Kan.), an obstetrician-gynecologist who has backed bipartisan legislation to establish a medically tailored meals pilot program under Medicare. “And that budget-wise is going to save us money in the long term.”
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Meanwhile, some Medicaid recipients might soon find their benefits ending. In April, states will reexamine the eligibility of Medicaid enrollees ahead of the end of the COVID-19 national emergency and public health emergency. Many enrollees received benefits during the pandemic when Medicaid suspended eligibility reviews and improper-payment assessments, the National Review reported.
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