New health care law could benefit farmers

Health problems can alter farm operations or bankrupt them.

It?s common in farm society for one farm spouse, or perhaps both of them, to find off-farm jobs to get health insurance, even when the farm operation could have used their help.

Most agricultural producers, and the farm and ranch organizations that represent them, seemed to recognize even decades before President Obama?s national health insurance plan that the costs of health insurance and health care are major problems in farm finances.

There is even some unity among farm organizations that generally choose different political paths that something needed to be done for the sake of farm families.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, quoting what became his organization?s stance during national health-care debates, said, ?America needs a national health-care policy that addresses the difficulty and greater cost of providing health, education and social services in rural America.

?Often, qualified doctors, nurses, practitioners and adequate facilities are scarce. All Americans deserve access to quality health coverage.?

Case study

The story has often been told in Kansas Farm Bureau circles, and spread far beyond, of the health nightmare that occurred at the Rice County farm operation of Roger and Susan Griffin.

Roger has been president of Rice County Farm Bureau and a member of the Kansas Farm Bureau?s political committee. He worked 2,000 acres of wheat, milo, corn and soybeans near Lyons.

In 2001, Roger contracted West Nile virus, probably from a mosquito bite, and even with what he thought was good health insurance, by 2006 his out-of-pocket medical expenses exceeded $100,000.

The Griffins were able to pay bills without selling land, but they were forced to rent the land to others and take other jobs. Roger, who was left with chronic fatigue syndrome from the disease, has worked multiple part-time jobs.

Support for health care bill

One farm organization, the Center for Rural Affairs at Lyons, Neb., openly supported the Democratic Party health bill that was passed.

The CRA stance was fully supported by the Kansas Rural Center at Whiting, where KRC President Dan Nagengast said, ?Nearly every farmer knows of too many other farmers who have had to quit because of medical expenses.?

Nagengast said his own situation is somewhat typical of what can happen to farmers.

?I need a hip replacement, and I can?t afford it,? he said. ?It will cost $50,000 to $60,000 in this country while in other parts of the world it runs about $8,000 to $9,000. That?s part of the problem, that our costs in the United States are high.?

Even though he has had health insurance, Nagengast said his insurance company limited options by not covering anything to do with a prior condition of his wife.

Added to this, Nagengast said he feels his insurance costs, at $14,000 to $15,000 a year, are typical for most farmers with a family and any health problems at all.

Nagengast grew up on a wheat and grain family farm operation in Nebraska, and now produces fruits and vegetables, including a greenhouse operation, between Topeka and Lawrence.

He said the average age of farmers is over 50, which adds to their medical expectancy problems.

With the new national health care bill, Nagengast said he will be able to get the surgery he needs. His wife?s previous condition will no longer be allowed to limit care. And, he will be allowed to retain his 21-year-old son on his own policy until the young man can get established in his own career.

More affordable coverage

CRA spokesman John Crabtree said Nagengast?s examples are typical among many in the national bill that will help farmers.

Crabtree said CRA findings indicate the health bill will result in more affordable coverage that limits premium increases, and gives tax credits to make premiums more affordable for the self-employed. Coverage will be more secure with caps on out-of-pocket expenses, he said.

It also allows keeping current insurance or buying other insurance to increase competition, he said. And, Crabtree added, that?s with Nagengast?s example of disallowing coverage denial for previous conditions.

At the same time, he said, companies will be required to spend a greater percentage of premiums on health care.

CRA policy states, ?A balance between self-interest and the common good means we cannot allow people to be driven out of business simply because they cannot afford the ever-rising cost of health insurance.?

As far as other farm organizations and interested parties, Crabtree said CRA never felt ?totally alone? in supporting national health care reform, although, he said, ?we?ve taken some heat for it. But we?ve made new friends and allies, too, and strengthened relationships with those who?ve been with us for a long time.?

CRA cites a study by the Schneider Institute for Health Policy at Brandeis University done in several central states that found that 90 percent of farmers had health insurance compared to 72 percent of adults nationally.

More than half of farmers said their insurance came from off-farm or ranch employment.

Most farm policies were non-group, independent insurance at higher premium and out-of-pocket expense?about four times the national average.

Twenty percent of the farm families had outstanding medical debt.

Twenty percent of respondents said a family member delayed seeking health care because of cost.

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