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Mason professor: Data shows that investing in healthy communities saves money in health care

August 6, 2018   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Len Nichols

Investing in healthy community practices can significantly reduce health care spending, George Mason University research shows.​

That’s according to the new study “Social Determinants as Public Goods: A New Approach to Financing Key Investments in Healthy Communities” by George Mason health policy professor Len Nichols—also director of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics—and Harvard doctoral candidate Lauren Taylor.​

Nichols expanded on previous investigations by Taylor, Elizabeth Bradley and others on how social spending influences health outcomes. Programs for the poor and the elderly, such as Housing First, Meals on Wheels and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), have been shown to lower Medicaid expenditures. ​

According to the study, in a hypothetical population of 300,000 people, if about 7,000 of them are transportation disadvantaged, investment in fixing that area’s nonemergency medical transportation could save Medicaid, Medicare, private insurers and uninsured people $7.7 million.​

“Public health researchers have known for at least 70 years, maybe more, that investing in social services will not only help people, it will actually reduce people’s need for health care services,” said Nichols, “which could lower health care costs.” ​

For example, the family of an unprivileged child with asthma may only need an air conditioner and a good vacuum cleaner to control his symptoms. Because Medicaid can’t pay for these necessary items the family otherwise can’t afford, said Nichols, the child is sent to the hospital more often. ​

A simple investment in the child’s well-being would save Medicaid in expensive hospital costs. The study shows how a little known economic model and a 12-step collaboration process among community stakeholders can work.  ​

"[This model] ends up saving money and helping people,” Nichols said. “It's a win-win."  ​

This study was published in Health Affairs Aug. 6.

Len Nichols can be reached at 703-993-1978 or lnichols9@gmu.edu.

Lauren Taylor can be reached at 516-662-4201 or ltaylor@hbs.edu.​

For more information, contact Mary Lee Clark at 703-993-5118 or mclark35@gmu.edu.​

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls more than 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.