NFU pushes health-care reform
OMAHA (DTN) – Leaders of the National Farmers Union highlighted Tuesday that there are people in agriculture who back health-care reform.
“Our members have for years endorsed a single-payer universal system,” said Roger Johnson, president of the NFU, in a conference call with reporters. “That’s the system most major industrialized countries in the world have.”
The bill being considered in the Senate would not create a single-payer system, a health-care system in which the federal government or an entity created by the government collects all of the payments and reimburses health-care providers.
On the call with Johnson were leaders from Arkansas, Nebraska and New England – areas with key senators who will likely cast votes in the coming weeks that will tip the scales on the health-care debate. Senators are expected to pick up debate on the bill next week after their Thanksgiving break.
As has been the case on several issues this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation and NFU are on opposite tracks regarding health-care reform. Farm Bureau leaders oppose a public health care option and oppose mandates in the bill for individual coverage or employers to require coverage. Farm Bureau argues the bill will reduce the number of hospitals and doctors in rural America as well.
Johnson said that under the U.S. system, health-care costs per capita are twice the costs of other countries. The result is that medical expenses are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the U.S., he said. Farmers generally are also older, and work in an occupation that is riskier. As a rule, farmers also end up paying for medical insurance with after-tax income, making it more expensive as a whole, Johnson said.
“We are strongly in support of health-care reform,” Johnson said. “We support the public option.”
The pre-existing condition exclusion health insurers now use “really is immoral,” Johnson said. Such provisions hurt people who need health care, he said.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said two companies control 69 percent of the health-insurance market in the state. Hansen noted the vehement opposition to a public option voiced by conservative Nebraskans as “ironic” given that Nebraska also is the only state in the country with 100 percent public power.
“There needs to be a comprehensive approach that controls costs across the board… The public option in Nebraska for electric generation has served us extremely well,” Hansen said. “Yet we (vilify) a similar kind of option when it comes to health care.”
While the public insurance option in the health bill could have higher premium costs than many farmers now pay, Hansen said that figure doesn’t take into account the high deductibles facing farmers, as well as coverage exclusions.
“They pay high premiums and high deductibles, and yet only half of their body parts are covered,” Hansen said.
While Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska has been a strong critic of the health-care bill, his counterpart, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, backed the procedural vote last week that helped advance debate on the bill. Nelson will be lobbied aggressively from both sides as the bill advances.
Annie Cheatham, president of the New England Farmers Union, emphasized the problems farmers face in Maine, where health-care reform backers hope Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe will break ranks and support the bill.
Cheatham said farmers have “no competition” options for coverage. The insurers in Maine last year wanted an 18-percent rate hike in Maine and sued state officials when they did not get the full increase, Cheatham said.
Young farmers are delaying having children because they cannot afford to risk going to the hospital, Cheatham said.
“This is typical of the problems faced by Maine farmers,” she said.
In Arkansas, Olly Neal helped organize a rural health center in Arkansas in the 1990s and recently retired as a state appellate judge. Neal now works for the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corp., which works for improving rural living conditions in parts of the state.
“Our folks, even those who try to be rather thoughtful, sometimes get caught up in a trap when they can’t afford real health care and go buy some fly-by-night policy that will promise to pay them so much money if they are hospitalized but offers no assistance when there is a hospital visit and the amount it pays is so insignificant as to not give any real assistance,” Neal said.
Neal said his organization has worked well with Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the past, and he said, “We believe she’s going to find a way to be supportive of the health policy that the Senate finally puts forward, and we hope that it will include a public option.”