SNAP & Medicaid Key to Disaster Response

By Nune Phillips

Today marks the first day of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season. As people stock up on supplies to prepare for the year’s storms, we need to ensure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid are ready, too.

Hurricanes, fires, and floods ravaged states and territories last year, setting a record for economic impact. Communities were devastated as more than 25 million people were affected during last year’s disasters. Recovery is slow, even with increased funding to support rebuilding efforts. 

Texas and Florida residents are still struggling to rebuild after hurricanes and flooding wreaked havoc on their communities. Eight months later, Puerto Rico continues to have regular power outages and challenges meeting basic needs like medical care following Hurricane Maria. A recently released study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows the death toll in Puerto Rico was much higher than originally thought. It suggests the number of deaths is closer to 5,000, far more than the official count of 64. Some of these deaths may be attributed to lack of emergency medical care or medical equipment that failed because of power loss.

Safe shelter, clean water, stable electricity, food, and health care are critical before and after disasters. Low-income people have an especially hard time meeting immediate needs. That’s why SNAP and Medicaid—which help millions of people put food on the table and access health care in their communities—become even more important following natural disasters. SNAP is designed to be responsive, meaning it’s available to anyone who meets the eligibility criteria. Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) provides immediate food assistance to low-income households who have lost food, are unable to work, or experience other challenges due to a disaster. Like SNAP, Medicaid is also designed to provide assistance to everyone who qualifies. 

But last year's hurricanes showed that some Americans may not have equal access to these supports. Unlike other states and territories, Puerto Rico receives funding for SNAP (called NAP, the Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid in the form of a block grant, and D-SNAP is not available following natural disasters. Consequently, these programs can’t be responsive during a time of increased need. That might leave some residents of Puerto Rico without the long-term support they need. 

Eventually, Puerto Rico was given additional funds to provide food assistance and temporarily supplement its Medicaid program following Hurricane Maria. However, this required Congressional action when time was of the essence and does not fix the underlying problems with the structure of these programs in Puerto Rico. These programs require federal review and action to ensure Puerto Ricans have the access they need to food assistance and health care in the long run.

We can’t know when and where natural disasters will strike this year. People in communities across the country are preparing for what could be another active storm season, getting their homes and emergency kits ready.  At the same time, we need to remember the important role programs like SNAP and Medicaid play in ensuring people are able to eat and access medical care in times of emergency.