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Study: Health insurance major concern for farmers

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Written Thursday, November 12, 2009  

Both large and small farmers say that the cost of health insurance is their top business concern, according to a new report issued by Ohio State University's Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI).

The findings come from a larger study, "Agricultural Adaptation at the Rural-Urban Interface: Can Communities Make a Difference?" led by researchers at Ohio State and Utah State University. The goal of the ongoing national study is to identify the challenges and opportunities of farming in urbanizing areas.

"Health insurance came up several times in interviews with farmers before we conducted our survey in 2007, so we decided to include health insurance as an issue in the survey," said Shoshanah Inwood, an SRI research associate in Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But we were not expecting it to come out as the top concern. We were really surprised."

However, a 2009 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, "Health Care Access of Farm and Rural Populations," supports the survey findings, Inwood said. The USDA study found that farm operator households spend more on health care than other U.S. households, spending an average of $5,200 to $10,000 a year for health insurance coverage.

In Inwood's study, researchers analyzed surveys from 453 farmers from eight counties in six states. All operate in areas known as the "Rural-Urban Interface" -- rural land situated near increasingly urbanized areas.

Key findings of the research include:

Health insurance is identified as a very serious issue for the majority of the farmers surveyed, including 65 percent of commercial farmers (those who grow commodity and/or specialty crops) and 40 percent for the rural resident farmer (those who often do not rely on the farm as their main source of income). Still, even for rural residential farmers, the cost of health insurance tied with the cost of farmland as their top concern.

The cost of health insurance not only is a concern for protecting the farm family, but, like many small businesses, it limits the number of full-time employees a farm can employ, thereby limiting the ability of the farm enterprise to grow to its full potential.

To access affordable family health care, a farm operator or spouse often seeks benefits through an off-farm job, thereby limiting the time these families can devote to the farm and grow their business.

The researchers conclude, Inwood said, that when policy-makers at the local, state or national levels design local land protection and agricultural economic development policies, they should account for the issue of health insurance and how it impacts farm persistence and adaptation. Inwood is pleased that the findings of the study are available just as interest in national health care policies is at a peak.

"An affordable and accessible national health care program would free up time and resources for farmers at the rural-urban interface and elsewhere," Inwood said. "It would allow them to more easily reinvest in their enterprises, households and local economies."

The full report is available at http://cffpi.osu.edu/policybriefs.htm . Additional information on the national study is available at http://cffpi.osu.edu/agadapt.htm .

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