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    Hunger’s tab in Mass. is $2.4 billion, report says

    pat greenhouse/globe staff/file

    Food insecurity has been linked to myriad health problems in adults and children. Now, a new report puts a dollar figure on the annual cost of hunger in Massachusetts: $2.4 billion.

    The estimate comes from a new report by the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Children’s HealthWatch, a nonpartisan network of pediatricians and researchers. Using evidence on hunger in peer-review journals and medical analyses, the report aims to tally costs of medical treatment, special education, and lost work associated with the problem.

    The report, being released Tuesday, seeks to highlight the need for better screening for food insecurity and for increased funding for anti-hunger programs.

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    Catherine D’Amato, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank, hopes the study will convince people that food insecurity is a matter of public health — especially for children.

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    “If a child misses the right nutrition early on in their life ... it can limit their potential to be an active citizen in their community. That damage is done,” D’Amato said.

    The direct and indirect costs of treating health issues that have been linked to food insecurity accounted for the lion’s share — about $1.9 billion — of the estimate, billed as the first of its kind for the state. Associated health conditions include asthma, diabetes, depression, chronic pulmonary disease, obesity, and arthritis.

    The report’s coauthor, John T. Cook said HealthWatch arrived at the overall estimate by taking the fraction of people suffering from each condition in the state and multiplying that number by the average cost of treatment per person for one year.

    Cook, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University, said the numbers account only for the diseases with enough quantitative research to prove they are linked with food insecurity. He said he is “quite certain” that the cost is higher than $2.4 billion considering the numbers that go unreported.

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    One of these invisible factors is that those who are food insecure are more likely to stop taking prescription medications because they need the money to pay for food or other necessities. Conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure then go untreated, causing the diseases to worsen so that the person ends up having to receive more health care at higher cost.

    Among key recommendations, the report:

      Suggests that health insurers should reimburse health care providers for screening and reimburse programs providing food resources, such as food pantries.

      Urges the creation of a common application for MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

      Asks the state to require that high-poverty schools institute breakfast after the bell to increase participation in the federal breakfast program.

    Margeaux Sippell can be reached at margeaux.sippell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MargeauxSippell