Byline: NATHAN LEAF email@example.com 608-252-6126
More than three years after state officials passed legislation designed to help lower health-care costs for agriculture producers, a health insurance cooperative has been established to cover individual Wisconsin farmers as one group.
The Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives is scheduled to launch The Farmers' Health Cooperative of Wisconsin today with the promise of comprehensive insurance plans at more affordable prices than the private coverage farmers receive on their own.
'It allows farmers to come together in a large group and use their enhanced buying power to negotiate a more favorable health insurance plan,' said Bill Oemichen, WFC president and chief executive officer.
The cooperative's launch was preceded by the Co-op Care initiative, started by the WFC in 2003. State officials hoped to have some type of cooperative insurance in place by the end of 2004, but further clarification of the law was needed in 2005 and 2006 to ensure individual farmers would be recognized as part of a larger group.
The cooperative will be available to all farmers and their families, farm employees and those who serve agriculture such as feed mills or milk delivery drivers.
Oemichen said that under the cooperative's coverage plans -- which will be insured through Aetna of Hartford, Conn., and administered by Agri-Services Agency of Syracuse, N.Y. -- any type of workplace injury on the farm would be covered, something most farmers don't have coverage for. With six types of plans offered, ranging from low deductibles of $300 to a high of $5,000, the plans will also include drug coverage, $500 worth of preventative health-care per year per member, and a tax deductible health-savings account.
Oemichen would not say what individuals can expect to pay for the insurance because rates will vary widely by individual.
Patty Endres, who with her husband Dave operates an 800-head dairy farm in Lodi, is already paying premiums of $26,000 per year for coverage of the couple and their three children.
But despite the cost, Endres, who has had a heart transplant, is very happy with their coverage, which is under a group plan that includes the farm's 10 employees.
She's cautious of the new cooperative offering. For Endres, living without insurance isn't an option. 'I'm anxious to see more about' the cooperative plan, she said. 'We just have to make sure it works (and is sustainable) before we go on it. ... We can't be without coverage.'
When The Farmers' Health Cooperative plan becomes active April 1, it will have a network of 125 hospitals, 500 care facilities, 17,000 physicians and 24-hour nurse and 24 hour claims hot lines, Oemichen said.
With 18 percent of Wisconsin farmers uninsured and 41 percent unable to afford to insure every family member, Oemichen said many are leaving the farms altogether to get adequate coverage. 'The number one reason (people get out of farming) is because of the lack of affordable, quality health insurance,' he said.
Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen expects the program to partially alleviate what has become a major stress in farm life and has forced many families to find some work off the farm just to receive insurance.
'A $2,000-a-month premium is not unheard of for a dairy farmer,' Nilsestuen said. 'Well, these aren't CEOs. They don't have the bucks to pay that. ... This is a product that has significant promise.'
The cooperative has received a $72,000 startup grant from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, a $450,000 grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Fund and a $10,000 grant from AgStar Financial Services. Federation of Cooperatives' members have invested about $600,000. The WFC also worked with Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, to secure $2.4 million in federal funding for the initial operating capital for the cooperative.