WI farmers share impact on potential health insurance repeal

Nick Levendofsky
Many farm families favor affordable health care.

Senate Republicans scrapped a planned vote on a last-ditch Obamacare repeal bill earlier this week, conceding that the party did not have the votes to pass it.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had planned to bring the bill, crafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, to the floor for a vote this week as Republicans raced to beat a Sept. 30 deadline.

National Farmers Union officials applauded the no vote on the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, saying the proposal stood to worsen access to affordable and quality health care for American family farmers and ranchers.

“The decision not to vote on the Graham-Cassidy bill comes as a major relief to family farmers, ranchers, and rural communities across the country," said NFU President Roger Johnson. “The proposal would have destabilized individual marketplaces, caused millions to lose coverage, and weakened protections for individuals with preexisting conditions. At the same time, dramatic cuts to health care funding would have made it all but impossible for states to prevent rising premiums and rural hospital closures."

Wisconsin Farmers Union officials and local farmers say the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Graham-Cassidy Health Care Repeal Plan, is a prescription for harm to rural America.

Since its launch in 2013, the ACA health insurance marketplace has already improved the prospects for health insurance in rural Wisconsin.  According to a June 2015 analysis by the Wisconsin Council of Children and Families, “the health insurance marketplace is especially important in rural areas of the state, where the percentage of people with marketplace plans is typically about twice the participation rate in urban parts of Wisconsin.”

It’s hard to over-estimate the peace of mind that comes with having health insurance.  One of the farmers who knows this first-hand is Tina Hinchley, a dairy farmer from Dane County.

“Before the Affordable Care Act, we went without health insurance for over 8 years because of preexisting medical conditions. We would apply for insurance, but were continually denied. We have insurance today because of the ACA marketplace,” Hinchley said.

Stevens Point area farmer and Wood-Portage-Waupaca County Farmers Union President Alicia Razvi, told her family’s health care story during NFU’s recent Legislative Fly-In, held Sept. 11-13 in Washington, D.C., and began with this quote: “We are producers, and we are historically under-insured or uninsured. It conveys the idea that food is essential, but the person growing the food is not.”

Alicia Razvi shared her family's health care story with members of Congress and Senators during NFU’s Fly-In in Washington D.C.

Sharing their stories

When Razvi shared her story with members of Congress and Senators during NFU’s Fly-In, others in the room chimed in with their experiences. The reality is, a major health event like her husband’s cancer diagnosis does not need to occur to have a pre-existing condition, or to be deemed uninsurable. It can be as simple as a need for glasses, a premature birth, bad back, broken hand, or even the career choice of farmer.

“Like other self-employed individuals, many farmers find it difficult to obtain affordable health insurance,” Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) President Darin Von Ruden said. “In addition, farmers are sometimes excluded from private health insurance plans entirely because of the risks inherent in farming. A lack of affordable health insurance options can also be a roadblock to new prospective farmers getting into farming.”

$14,000 deductible

Patty and Gary Edelburg and their twins own and operate a 130-cow dairy and 450 acres of corn and alfalfa in central Wisconsin. The Edelburgs get their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and previously were unable to get health insurance. They didn't qualify for Badger Care, and were denied by traditional private health insurance companies because of very minor pre-existing conditions. When they could, they applied for ACA coverage. Without it, they would not have health insurance

"My husband and I are equal partners and work equally as hard on the farm,” Patty says. “If one of us were to get a job off farm, just for health insurance, we would have to find someone to replace that person on the farm. That said, I know there are flaws, but it still needs to be affordable.” The Edelburgs pay $542 a month and have a $14,000 deductible for a family of four. They would have to sell cows in order to come up with that $14,000. “If we were to fully need to use our health insurance in the course of a year, we would pay over $20,000,” Edelburg said.

When Linda Ceylor, her husband, and their two small children started dairy farming in 1990, they were unable to afford health insurance.

A hand up

When Linda Ceylor, her husband, and their two small children started dairy farming in 1990, they were unable to afford health insurance. Each spouse worked off the farm, her husband full time, while Linda worked two-part time jobs. None of the jobs offered health insurance.

“All went well until my husband developed a protruding hernia, and needed surgery. After a 10-month wait for Washington State to set up a program for state Medicaid, we were able to enroll and have the hernia repaired. We were very lucky he did not require emergency surgery, which would have ended our dairy farm, as we were still incurring many debts of business startup,” Ceylor said.

Urban sprawl forced the Ceylors out of their farm in Washington State, which led them to relocate to rural Wisconsin, where they again had no health insurance. After several years, they were eligible for Badger Care, which enabled them to avoid financial instability. After the children aged out of Badger Care, the Catawba couple were on their own for insurance. “The affordable plan I was able to purchase through my employer was only catastrophe coverage, and the plan stated only one covered heart attack or stroke in a 30-day period would be covered,” Ceylor said.

“Through all of the health care uncertainty, my part time job became full time,” she said. “We now have both a fiscally sound dairy operation and excellent health coverage. We were helped by a hand up, but still hold a dream that one day we can both be home together to operate our family business.”

Stacey and Tenzin Botsford farm near Athens and have expressed frustration on the availability of health care in rural America.

Underserved communities

Stacey and Tenzin Botsford and their two young daughters farm near Athens. When Stacey was pregnant with their second daughter, the obstetrics department at their local clinic was eliminated due to budget cuts. The next closest hospital to them was an hour away, and when it came time for the baby to be born, it was too late to get to the hospital, so their child was born at home. “It’s like they don’t want young people to come back to rural communities. Why would you cut these essential services if you want young people and their children to live and work there?” Botsford asked.

Along with the previously listed concerns, Farmers Union is concerned with the lack of transparency in the legislating process to date, highlighting the far-reaching impacts the bill would have on farmers, ranchers, and all Americans. “There have been no hearings on this bill, and there will be no opportunity for a mark-up,” Johnson said. “This highly partisan process has robbed farmers and ranchers of the opportunity to make their voices heard.”

Despite the pressing need for fixes to the country's health care system, Johnson says congressional leadership has continuously proposed partisan plans that seek to further a political agenda rather than one that improves the lives of all Americans.

“NFU urges Congress to begin writing bipartisan legislation that improves access to affordable and quality health care for family farmers and ranchers,” he said.