A kernel of good news about rising health insurance costs sprang up from the farm last week.
Dodgeville dairyman George Laufenberg happily reported that his family's annual health insurance premiums had dropped almost in half - from $24,000 to $13,600.
The savings is as stunning as it is encouraging, even though Laufenberg still has to pay a $2,000 deductible for everyone in his family.
Laufenberg is saving the money thanks to Wisconsin's high-risk insurance pool. And by next year, he could be saving even more - if federal dollars finally come through.
Congress, thanks to prodding by U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., has approved $2.3 million to help launch several health-care cooperatives in Wisconsin. The regional cooperatives would give small business people - especially farmers - buying power to lower insurance premiums.
The cooperatives also could reduce high deductibles or find some other way to make it easier for small-business owners and employees to seek preventive care.
A 2003 state law allows five health-insurance cooperatives to form. A bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Doyle earlier this month allows even more to start.
Buying pools alone won't solve the problem of skyrocketing health-care costs in Wisconsin and across the nation. But these pools will help those workers who currently are getting hit the hardest by health costs and who have little leverage for pushing change.
Farmers on average pay three times more for their medical insurance than typical Wisconsin workers, the governor recently said. Farming jobs are more dangerous than most jobs, so higher costs should be expected. But farmers are not reaping higher profits for taking those higher risks. That's one more reason for farmers to get out of the business at a time when fewer young people are entering the field.
Yet everyone needs food, so everyone needs farmers. Their livelihoods are at risk in large part because they can't afford ever-more expensive insurance.
The Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives has organized the regional health-care cooperatives across the state. Now these co-ops need the start-up money that Congress promised. The money is insurance for the insurers. It's a needed cushion to convince the insurers to take a risk on the pool.
By next year, the Laufenbergs and other farm and small-business families should be able to buy into several pools, save money, seek preventive care and potentially ease higher health costs for everyone.
For more information, call the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives at 608-258-4382.