Worries about health care coverage prevent farmers and ranchers from working full time on their operations, and create barriers for young and beginning farmers and factor into farm succession issues, potentially denying young people access to land to farm.
Those are the findings of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded study says that lack of access to affordable health insurance is one of the most significant concerns facing American farmers. Three of four farmers and ranchers in the survey said that having affordable health insurance was an important or very important means of reducing their business risk. And just over half are not confident they could pay the costs of a major illness such as a heart attack, cancer or loss of limb without going into debt.
Farmers and ranchers shared stories about their family members or neighbors who had lost their farms or dairies due to catastrophic illness or injury when they were uninsured. Many said they are worried they will have to sell some or all of their farm or ranch assets to address health related costs such as long-term care, nursing home or in-home health assistance.
“These findings indicated that many farmers will need to sell their land, their most valuable asset, to the highest bidder when they need cash to cover health-related costs, making it more difficult for young farmers to afford land and increasing the likelihood farmland is sold for commercial development,” said researcher Shoshanah Inwood.
Changes in Access to Insurance Lets Farmers and Ranchers Focus on Farming and Ranching
Most farmers and ranchers had health insurance in 2016 thanks to off-farm employment. But recent changes in insurance regulations have allowed farmers to leave those jobs and devote more time to farming and ranching. A number of producers in their 50s said they had left off-farm employment in the last five years to commit to full-time farming because they and their families would not be denied health insurance in the individual market due to pre-existing conditions. Young farmers who had taken advantage of the Medicaid expansion in their states told researchers that it allowed them to provide health insurance for their children and have time and energy to invest in the farm or ranch rather than having to seek a full-time off-farm or ranch job with benefits.
Off-Farm Public Sector Employment Important to Producers and Their Communities
Over half (59 percent) of farm and ranch families received benefits through public sector employers (health, education and government).”Public sector jobs, especially in rural areas often offer the highest wages and most generous benefits,” Inwood said. “Changes in public and private sector employment options or benefits affect the financial stability and social well-being of farm families with impacts reverberating through rural communities.”
Nearly 75% say USDA Should Represent Farmer Interests
Given the pressing nature of their health insurance concerns, farmers are also seeking help from the federal government.
Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of farmers said USDA should represent farmers’ needs in national health policy discussions, particularly due to unique health needs of farmers and farm workers (such as coverage for blood tests to examine potential pesticide exposures).
“The timing is right,” Inwood said. “The next Farm Bill is an opportunity to start thinking about how health insurance affects the trajectory of farms in the United States. The five-year update of the U.S. Farm Bill is due in 2018. The comprehensive Farm Bill deals with agriculture and all other issues under the jurisdiction of the USDA.
Addressing these issues is critical, says Inwood. “Nothing is more important to the country’s food system than the viability of the farm sector,” she said. “It’s a matter of national security.”
For the study, a total of 1,062 farmers and ranchers were surveyed in March 2017 in Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky, Washington, Utah and California. Study states were selected in each of the four Census regions and included a mix of those that had expanded or not expanded Medicaid. The study results were also based on interviews of up to 10 families in each of the study states.
This comes to us from Science Daily and was edited for style length.