Wisconsin's efforts to get more families covered by health insurance will take a step forward this spring when a new cooperative begins enrolling farmers and agribusinesses in health insurance plans.
Families working in agriculture should take advantage of the opportunity.
The Farmers' Health Cooperative of Wisconsin, three years in the making, is the latest product of a 2003 change in state law allowing small businesses to pool their buying power to gain improved, lower-cost insurance comparable to the group plans that larger businesses offer.
A handful of small business health insurance cooperatives are in various stages of development, thanks to the legal change and more than $2 million in federal money. The Farmers' Health Cooperative is scheduled to open its enrollment April 1.
The farmers' cooperative is especially important because Wisconsin's 70,000 farmers until now have generally been unable to get group health insurance. Individual insurance tends to be costly, with limited benefits.
As a result, nearly one in five farmers is uninsured, according to a University of Wisconsin survey. Lack of insurance exposes them to the risk of huge medical bills that can bankrupt a family. If unpaid, those same bills end up raising health care costs for everyone.
In farm families that have insurance, it is often only because one spouse takes a job off the farm to get health insurance, leaving the farm short of manpower.
Similarly, employees of small farm service businesses struggle with the cost and quality of health insurance. Their employers often cannot afford the same plans that larger businesses offer.
Allowing farmers and agribusinesses to pool their buying power to gain more clout in the marketplace is the right solution.
The Farmers' Health Cooperative insurance plans are not intended to solve the problem of the high cost of health care. The insurance won't be cheap.
Nonetheless, the plans offered through the co-op will be affordable when compared to other options. In addition, coverage will be improved. For example, farmers typically are not covered by regular health insurance plans for injuries suffered while working. Workers compensation is required for that. But the co-op will offer coverage for injuries while working.
Health insurance buying pools can make an important contribution to efforts to expand and improve health coverage nationwide. The Farmers' Health Cooperative is worth Wisconsin's support.