2004 MAY 3 - (NewsRx.com & NewsRx.net) -- Farmers recognize that each year is a gamble that the right amounts of sun and rain will provide for their crops.
For some, going without health insurance is just one more game of chance.
'I've talked to many farmers who say, 'If it comes down to paying the grain bill to keep the farm going or paying for health insurance, I'll pay the grain bill and keep my fingers crossed,'' said Julia-Marie Bickford, executive director the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
As they struggle to make ends meet, many Maine farmers are forgoing health insurance. Many other self-employed Mainers are doing the same, but the choice is particularly risky for farmers, whose work is physically demanding and can result in injury.
'It's just incredibly expensive,' said Thomas Roberts, an uninsured vegetable grower in Pittsfield. 'We try to minimize costs, and that's a pretty big cost especially when it's not something you necessarily use.'
Some farmers lower insurance costs by taking off-farm work, or by having a spouse do so.
'If it wasn't for my wife, I wouldn't have it,' said James Richmond, a Pittsfield dairy farmer married to a nurse. 'It would be impossible for me. I don't know how anybody affords it, really.'
Some elect to farm on a part-time basis so they can keep a job that provides benefits.
'I can't farm full-time because I need to keep my family insured,' said Kevin Bacon, a Sidney dairy farmer.
Many farmers are older, adding to concerns about the uninsured. In 2002, according to a Department of Agriculture survey, there were nearly six times as many Maine farmers over 55 as there were younger than 35. And farming ranks third among professions likely to suffer on-the-job injuries, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.
But Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, said the people who grow the nation's food are not a high risk for insurers. Farmers, he said, are more physically fit than most Americans, and they're stoic, refusing to go to the doctor unless it's absolutely necessary.
Olson's Augusta-based agency offers health insurance at reduced rates to farmers, but he said many farmers do without the coverage.
'It's one more financial stress,' he said. 'It's a big issue.'
Some observers see hope for uninsured farmers from Governor John Baldacci's Dirigo Health Plan, which aims to lower health-insurance costs for the estimated 136,000 Mainers who lack coverage.
Edwin Porter, deputy commissioner at the Maine Department of Agriculture, said his agency is working with the governor's office to ensure that the program is helpful to farmers.
At this point, however, it's unclear how much the plan will cost and whether farmers will choose to pay for it.
'We think of the cows first sometimes,' said Richmond, the Pittsfield dairy farmer. 'We tend to think of ourselves last.'
This article was prepared by Health & Medicine Week editors from staff and other reports. Copyright 2004, Health & Medicine Week via NewsRx.com & NewsRx.net.