Tip Sheets

Covering Health Care: Six Easy Pieces

Food and Nutrition

Nearly 44 million Americans -- that's 1 of every 7 -- are receiving supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The stigma of using food stamps is fading fast, as retailers ranging from farmer's markets to corner stores are accepting food stamps.

There are two basic questions to ask: Where can people use their benefits, and what food is available? This is an important and growing issue, since more than half of food stamp retailers aren't really food markets, per se: They include convenience stores, pharmacies and liquor stores, among others.

The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has a decent website for up-to-date information.

SNAP retailer locator map

You can download individual state files that give you a bit more latitude in finding and analyzing data.

Health Insurance

The U.S. Census Bureau recently began including a question about health insurance status in its American Community Survey, an annual survey that's the largest of its kind. For now, the best source for the information is American FactFinder:

American FactFinder

Since the question was first asked in 2009, there aren't any five-year estimates available (which would offer extreme geographic granularity and less margin of error). You'll have to use one-year estimates by clicking on the "Data Sets" tab in the left middle of the main Fact Finder page; fill in the radio button for the one-year ACS estimates (latest figures available are 2009); choose the "Detailed Tables" option; select your geography; and look for Table B27001, which begins a series of health insurance-related questions.

Make sure you understand where health insurance numbers originate. The ACS asks about the current status for health insurance; separate Census numbers, taken from the monthly Current Population Survey, ask if people have been uninsured at any point over the last 16 months.

Medicare Data

Medicare, the federal public health insurance program, mostly covers people older than 65. It also takes up about $450 billion in annual costs, making it one of the biggest gorillas in the Washington zoo. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has compiled quite a bit of data.

CMS Medicare website

One of the more useful databases in the collection is the "Hospital Outcome of Care Measures."

You can use the database to compare mortality and readmission rates for hospitals across the country:

Mortality and readmission rates

Medicare also keeps a useful list of hospitals that includes such basic information as the hospital's name, address and type of ownership at:

Hospital ownership

There's a very good database that allows you to compare prices for common procedures at hospitals . As with most other databases, it's best if you can download the data and analyze it using a spreadsheet or database program:

compare prices for common procedures

Finally, I'd recommend checking out the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) HCUPnet. The agency, which is part of the federal government, has a tremendous amount of data on hospital usage and costs:

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Three disadvantages: The data tends to lag a couple of years, not all states have figures available, and it can cost a fair amount of money to get some data. Advantages include its status as one of the only all-payer databases (everything from privately insured or cash-paying patients to Medicare beneficiaries) are included, and pretty good customer support and tutorials.