Farmers’ insurance co-op cuts costs

MILWAUKEE &#8212 Connie Marsh no longer worries about her health insurance while she milks the dairy cows on her family farm.

She had paid about $1,400 a month for coverage for her family, but a new health insurance cooperative for farmers dropped her payments to nearly half that.

Organizers of the Farmers’ Health Cooperative of Wisconsin, the nation’s first such program, say it’s growing faster than expected and tapping into an unmet need in rural communities. The concept, they say, should spread nationwide.

Marsh and her husband milk about 50 dairy cows near Dodgeville in southwestern Wisconsin and, for the past 20 years, used a private HMO. But she said the costs to insure her family, which includes three kids, kept going up, and coverage was limited. So when the co-op was open for enrollment this past spring, the family switched.

“We thought, ‘Man, we just can’t keep paying more and more and more.’ So we took the plunge and, so far, it’s worked out,” said March, 49.

The co-op launched April 1 with the goal of relying on the collective bargaining power of the state’s farmers and agri-businesses to offer less expensive policies than farmers could get on their own. It also aims to offer plans with more benefits and coverage, including farm accidents, which are often cost-prohibitive or unavailable with private policies.

Farmers, their families, employees and those who own or work in agriculture-related businesses are eligible for the six plans. So far it has 1,600 members paying about $4 million in premiums. The group’s goal, organizer Katie Mnuk said, was to have 1,000 members by the end of the first year.

Farmers sign up for a variety of reasons.

“There are some people who didn’t have health insurance before or people who were unhappy with their current coverage,” said Mnuk, co-op care project coordinator for the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, which is helping organize the co-op. “Some people feel like they’re paying a lot for their current coverage but not getting much value for it.”

Most farmers have some type of health insurance – but at a price, according to a new survey. A survey of 2,000 farmers and ranchers in the Great Plains showed that 90 percent have health coverage, but 36 percent buy their own insurance privately. More than half rely on coverage from a spouse’s employer-sponsored program and 10 percent rely on state or federal insurance, like Medicaid, according to the 2007 Health Insurance Survey of Farm and Ranch Operators. Ten percent of respondents said at least one family member wasn’t insured last year.

The costs can be staggering, with one in five reporting having outstanding medical debt.

March said she considered getting a job outside of the farm for health insurance, but then the family would have to pay someone to take over her farm duties.

Health care costs are rising for everyone, but farmers are particularly hard hit because they’re more likely to have to rely on private insurance, rather than group policies, which cost more, said Jon Bailey, director of the rural research and analysis program at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. They’re also more prone to injuries because of the nature of their work, so health care is a big worry, he said.

“That ends up being one of their big decision-makers when they’re sitting down like any other business and expensing things out,” Bailey said. “But this time you have your family and the emotions of your family involved, too.”

The co-op recently announced premiums will rise 7.9 percent for coverage next year. But March says that’s still a bargain compared to what she used to pay.

“The $600 a month helps, every little bit helps,” she said.