February 10, 2016

Haley Administration tries to combat obesity in food stamps, Medicaid recipients

State officials are hoping to cut down on obesity among the state’s uninsured by requiring food stamp recipients to use that money on healthier food.

Haley spoke briefly at the "Unified! A Voice Against Obesity" conference in Columbia Thursday

Haley spoke briefly at the “Unified! A Voice Against Obesity” conference in Columbia Thursday

Governor Nikki Haley on Thursday revealed a new collaborative among several state agencies which seeks to change how those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or “SNAP”) benefits can use those benefits.

“The only thing that is a parameter on what could be purchased… is everything’s fine as long as it’s not alcohol or cigarettes,” Department of Social Services director Lillian Koller told the “Unified! A Voice Against Obesity” conference in Columbia Thursday.

Koller and other members of the Haley Administration are working on a waiver request that seeks permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start restricting which foods or drinks can be bought with the $1.4 billion in SNAP benefits South Carolina provides. The USDA has previously rejected such efforts, saying it liked the idea but needed a small test group. DSS hopes South Carolina’s more than 800,000 recipients are the right size for the Agriculture Department.

“You are looking at a billion dollars that will no longer be put towards candy, chocolate, soda and chips,” Haley said, “But maybe be put into apples and oranges and things that are healthy.”

Koller said DSS plans to partner with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to hold three hearings around the state. She encouraged recipients, grocers, nutritionists, and others to weigh in on the idea. DHEC director Catherine Templeton has previously said she supports restricting SNAP benefits to the same list that her own agency uses for the “Women, Infants, and Children” (WIC) benefit program that is also used to help young mothers buy food.

Meanwhile the state agency that oversees Medicaid in South Carolina announced it is taking its own steps to lower obesity rates amongst the low-income patients it covers. Agency officials say a big first step is to officially recognize obesity as a disease.

Doing so would allow doctors to refer their Medicaid patients to licensed dieticians, according to Department of Health and Human Services medical director Dr. Marion Burton. He says currently, “Doctors can treat the chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions that result from obesity. But (they) are not sufficiently resourced to address the excessive weight before it leads to these… conditions.”

South Carolina and Nebraska are the only two states that do not classify obesity as an illness. The federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began offering states the option to do so in the mid-2000s, but Burton said South Carolina was reluctant to jump onboard at the time because there was little evidence the money was being well-spent. In fact, he still maintained that simply reimbursing dieticians would not be enough without “layers” of public health services and other programs that encourage healthy behavior in Medicaid patients.

“We didn’t fix it in the mid-2000s, and there may have been good reasons… but it certainly needs to be fixed now,” Burton said.

South Carolina would still need CMS’s approval before acting, but Burton said he expects the approval since most other states already classify obesity as a disease. He said approval would likely come by mid-summer.

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