Health insurance is almost always expensive for the self-employed, because they do not have access to large-pool group insurance and its associated lower premiums. However, among the self-employed, farmers are especially hard-hit.
According to a recent report by University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologists, farm households pay an average of $260 a month for health insurance: more than twice as much as other self-employed workers, and more than three times as much as wage or salary earners. In addition, these high premiums usually only buy insurance for major medical problems, which means farm families often don”t go to the doctor for preventive care or minor ailments.
“Adequate, affordable insurance for farm families is extremely important,” explains Doris Slesinger, a rural sociologist with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Everyone should have the right to health insurance: almost all other developed countries in the world provide it to their citizens. Also, farming is one of the most difficult and dangerous occupations in the country. Farmers don”t need to worry about affording health care on top of their economic problems.” Slesinger conducted the study with graduate student Julie Whitaker.
Slesinger and Whitaker”s study found that farmers pay high premiums regardless of the actual health of their family members. Premiums for families in which someone had a chronic health condition only cost about $40 more per month than premiums for healthy families.
Farm families sometimes obtain health insurance by sending one family member to work off the farm for an employer that provides coverage, Slesinger says. However, employers are increasingly contributing less toward premiums or offering health plans that cover only the worker. Also, it can be difficult to spare the extra set of hands, especially on dairy farms where milking and tending livestock go on all day.
Ultimately, she adds, the solution to the lack of adequate health care-for everyone, not just farm families-must come from the state or federal governments. “There are some programs available now, but they are fragmented-they only cover certain people and conditions,” she says. “There must be a comprehensive solution so no one falls through the cracks of coverage.”
Slesinger says that children are at particular risk from a lack of insurance. Without comprehensive coverage, children may not receive preventive care, and may miss physical exams and vaccinations or have to suffer through illnesses like bronchitis. “Farms are particularly dangerous for children, because there are no regulations about the work they do or their work environment,” she explains. “You often meet farmers who walk with a limp, or are missing a digit as a result of a childhood accident that was never properly treated. This is all taken for granted and accepted as part of farming. That shouldn”t be necessary anymore.”
Slesinger and Whitaker”s research on health insurance for farm families was supported by state funding to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and by a Hatch Grant from the College.