FARGO, N.D. -- Greg Brokaw might seem like an unlikely crusaderfor farmers' health insurance. He's not a farmer and he's not inneed of insurance.
But Brokaw, a 44-year-old horse trainer from rural Kulm, N.D.,says he has taken up the cause on behalf of his neighbors andfriends -- farm families struggling to find health insurance theycan afford.
'Maybe I'm the perfect person to complain about this,' saidBrokaw, who got out of farming years ago to concentrate on traininghorses. 'No one can accuse me that I'm complaining about my owncondition.'
At a recent meeting of the new Commission on the Future ofAgriculture, Brokaw said he went on a tirade about the ills of asystem that makes it almost impossible for farm families to getaffordable health insurance.
His comments won applause from the farmers, and the issue hasbecome a top priority of the special commission.
'None of us are health insurance experts,' said North DakotaAgriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson. 'But we heard loud and clearthat farmers are concerned about health-care costs, particularly theamount of insurance premiums they pay. ... It's something we feel isa priority to address.'
Farmers who want health insurance coverage must buy individualpolicies through companies such as Blue Cross-Blue Shield of NorthDakota. Blue Cross-Blue Shield has about 15,000 such contracts withfarmers and other self-employed residents, said spokeswoman ClaudiaDanovic.
But the policies can be expensive when the insured must pay theentire premium. Danovic said premiums for a farm family typicallyrange from $350 to $450 a month.
Johnson said he knows of farmers who pay $6,000 a year inpremiums for health insurance.
'For people like us who have insurance through our employers,it's easy to forget how expensive it is,' he said. 'But you've got alot of people out there who are spending more on health insuranceeach month than they spend on food.'
Brokaw said he paid about $425 a month for coverage for himself,his wife and his daughter when he farmed. Today, the family'sinsurance is provided through the U.S. Postal Service, where hiswife works.
Some suggest allowing individual farmers to join the PublicEmployees Retirement System, the program that provides healthinsurance and pension plans to 15,000 employees, most of them stateworkers.
They are required to get health-care coverage through the pensionsystem, ensuring a broad pool of participants to help keep premiumsdown.
State Insurance Commissioner Glenn Pomeroy said allowing peopleto join on a voluntary basis may be unworkable.
'From a raw insurance regulatory perspective, it's hard for us toconceive of how it would work because it would be mixing individualinsurance with group insurance,' said Pomeroy, who has discussed theidea with Johnson.
Brokaw and Johnson agree that allowing farmers to join the statesystem might be a mistake. But they refuse to dismiss the idea ofsome kind of large-group insurance plan.
'Something's got to be done,' Brokaw said. 'When it comes to thefinancial end of this thing, I don't have all the numbers or theanswers, but I can see what's happening. ... We've made healthinsurance so expensive for farmers that some of them just can't takethe chance any more.'