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February 2010

Health Care is Personal for Rural America

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

Health care is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Most Americans are either adamantly for or against proposed health care changes, igniting a national debate with a passion and fervor rarely seen on legislative issues. Understandably, the health care issue is very personal for Americans. It is also an issue with serious ramifications for rural residents.

Throughout the health care debate Farm Bureau has focused on two issues that are a make-it-or-break-it deal for producers and rural America: reducing health care costs and improving rural access to health care.

Health Care Costs Must be Reduced

Health insurance costs are an ongoing and significant expense for farmers and ranchers whose businesses are cyclical, with unprofitable years nearly as common as profitable ones.

Simply put, it’s not that we don’t want better health care, we just don’t want something we cannot afford.

To help ease the burden on producers and rural America, Farm Bureau policy favors tax credits to help the self-employed purchase health insurance and to help farm and ranch employers afford insurance for their employees. Mandating that individuals purchase health insurance will only work for rural America if costs are brought under control and if tax credits are generous enough to make insurance affordable.

Further, market-based reforms like the proposed “exchange,” which is a national insurance marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to buy insurance, would benefit rural areas by expanding competition between private insurance providers to reduce the cost of private health care. It is important that the definition of “small employers” who are eligible to use the exchange allow farms, ranches and small businesses to have access to the exchanges for purchasing insurance. Ag producers who have seasonal workers shouldn’t be automatically disqualified from using the exchange.

Rural America Needs Access to Health Care

It is also vital that rural Americans have access to doctors and hospitals. There continues to be a critical shortage of health care facilities and qualified health care professionals in rural areas. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 20 percent of Americans live in rural locations while only 9 percent of physicians in America practice in those areas.

To correct this growing disparity in health care access between rural and urban areas, federal programs should enable health care professionals to practice in underserved areas. For example, Farm Bureau believes Medicare reimbursement rates to rural doctors and health care facilities should be increased so that payment rates for rural medical services are comparable to urban areas.

If rural Americans have insurance but there are no doctors or health care facilities where they live, then incentives are needed to increase service to people who live in rural America. Increasing the number of doctors and health care providers who will practice in underserved areas is more important now than ever.

The contents of the health care package are very important to rural America because rural areas have the highest percentage of people without health insurance, the least access to competitive markets and pay the highest premiums. Because of this, the health care issue is very personal to farmers and ranchers.