Byline: Kate Raiford The Capital Times/Medill News Service
WASHINGTON -- Five years with no insurance. No doctor visits for the flu, strep throat or a cut on the hand - it's typical for many dairy farmers to live that way.
'It was a long five years; it was tough, a lot of sleepless nights,' said one Mosinee dairy farmer who declined to give her name. Because of a previous medical condition, no one would insure her, not even her husband's insurer.
She is one example of the nearly 20 percent of dairy farmers who are completely uninsured, compared with 10 percent of all farmers and 6 percent of all Wisconsin residents.
Eventually, the woman found a job that provided insurance. 'Being a sub, I don't make that much money, so basically I'm just working for the insurance,' she said.
Dairy farming is one of the nation's riskiest jobs, so the farmers are punished with high-priced insurance that's difficult to get. Even the state has been unable to protect its farmers from poor insurance coverage, but a new plan offered by a Wisconsin cooperative is sparking interest and might take some pressure off the farmers.
In Amherst, a small town east of Stevens Point, Robert and Judy Dambroski have private insurance, like the majority of insured farmers. But with their $700-a-month premium and a $3,550 deductible, it means fewer trips to the doctor.
'We're just waiting for it to go up,' Judy said. 'I watch going to the doctor.'
It's not the risk of dairy farming - a job that involves lots of dangerous machinery - that drives the prices up, however. It's the lack of risk pooling. Pooling the individual risks into one group lowers prices for all, but insurance companies treat a farmer as one company, said Jeremy Foltz, a UW-Madison associate professor of agriculture and applied economics.
The pool might just be a husband and a wife. In another business, say an accounting firm of 500 people, prices for all would be much lower.
In a small sample survey of dairy farmers around Stevens Point, a deductible of more than $1,000 was the norm.
A study from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau showed that farmers with private insurance paid an average of $2,892, or 183 percent more for insurance provided by off-farm employment.
Robert and Judy's son, Josh, and his wife Jodi, have some of the best insurance found in the survey of 10 or so families. Jodi works at Kohl's, primarily for the insurance, her husband said. Kohl's insurance covers the two of them, charging $120 a month with a $500 deductible.
'Her insurance is pretty good,' Josh said, but he added that the premiums will go up soon because of the birth of their child, who will be covered starting Sunday. Josh and Jodi might consider themselves lucky. Foltz said working off the farm is a diminishing strategy for insurance.
'A lot of the jobs that used to provide health insurance for their employees, particularly part-time employees, don't do that anymore,' he said. 'And they also don't want to insure spouses, and spouses who are dairy farmers are particularly expensive to insure.'
The state of Wisconsin's attempts to bypass the expense of private insurance have largely failed. One of the state's most extensive insurance programs, BadgerCare, is not used by most dairy farmers because relatively few meet its eligibility requirements.
Another program designed in 1990, the Private Employer Heath Care Coverage Plan, would have pooled farmers and small business to share the risk and lower prices. It was deemed too risky by health insurance companies, and the program failed. A state version fizzled, too, because the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust didn't want to include farmers.
But the new co-op plan, starting Sunday, is said by the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives to keep its rates steady, while offering the benefits of a shared-risk pool of farmers.
'If one could just get all the farmers who want to buy health insurance into one risk pool, you would get rid of a lot of the high cost of insurance,' Foltz said.
Information sessions for the cooperative are being held across the state and the turnout is about double what the organizers expected, said Bill Oemichen, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives.
The cooperative is working with Aetna Inc. and received money sponsored by Sens. Herb Kohl and David Obey and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, along with the University of Wisconsin.