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State Co-Op Slashes Costs

Connie Marsh no longer fears about her health insurance as she milks the dairy cows on her family farm.

She had paid approximately $1,400 each 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 nationís first such program, say it's growing faster than anticipated and tapping into an unmet requirement in rural communities. The concept, they say, ought to spread nationwide.

Marsh and her husband milk about 50 dairy cows near Dodgeville, and for the past 20 years used a private HMO. Nevertheless, she said the costs kept going up to insure her family, which comprises of three children, and coverage was limited. So when the co-op was open for registration this past spring, the family switched.

Marsh, 49 said, "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."

The co-op launched April 1, with the objective of relying on the collective bargaining power of the state's farmers and agri-businesses to offer less costly policies than farmers could get on their own. It also intends to offer plans with more advantages 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 suitable for the six plans. So far, it has 1,600 members paying around $4 million in premiums. The group's aim, organizer Katie Mnuk said, was to have 1,000 members by the end of the first year.

Farmers enroll 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 manage the co-op.

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% have health coverage, but 36% buy their own insurance privately. More than half can depend on coverage from a spouse's employer-sponsored program, and 10% 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 that at least one family member was not insured last year.

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

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

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

He said the group is looking to the Wisconsin model to observe if it may be applied somewhere else. Co-ops have long been part of rural life, and Wisconsin is considered a pioneer in that field, Bailey said. He said it would be interesting to see how a method that helps farmers sell their products or buy supplies can work with health care.

Mnuk said she has heard from several states, including Ohio, Texas and Iowa, about Wisconsin's program.

The co-op plans offer single buyers coverage with deductibles ranging from $300 to $5,000, to plans for families with deductibles of between $600 and $10,000. Benefits take in coverage for injuries from workplace accidents, $500 worth of preventive care per member, and prescription drug coverage.

The plan has a network of 125 hospitals, 500 care facilities, 17,000 physicians and 24-hour nurse and claims hot lines. The insurance arrives from Aetna of Hartford, Conn., and is administered by Agri-Services Agency of Syracuse, N.Y.



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