WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2017 – In addition to usual suspects like renewable fuels and farm bill policy, members of the National Farmers Union will be dipping their toes into one of the hottest legislative pools in Washington this week: the health care debate.
About 320 members, taking part in the organization’s annual fall fly-in, are being tasked with getting commitments from staffers and lawmakers alike to “support bipartisan legislation that increases the number of family farmers and ranchers with access to affordable, quality health care.”
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson tells Agri-Pulse the decision to have health care among the organization’s three fly-in issues was made at a July meeting of the group’s board.
“We knew farm bill was going to be front and center … and we knew that the biofuels push was going to be an important issue,” he said. “We didn’t get far into the discussion before someone said, ‘We should add health care,’ and heads nodded all around the table.”
“As a general farm organization, we’ve always taken a view that we needed to step back and look at the whole community and look at the whole person,” Johnson added. “This isn’t just about what we produce; it’s about how we live.”
NFU’s fly-in participants gathered in the Department of Agriculture’s Jefferson Auditorium Monday morning to hear from a handful of USDA officials, including Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. But tucked in the briefing was a presentation from Alana Knudson, co-director of the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis. She presented the findings of a study packed with statistics on the availability, affordability, and perception of health care in rural America.
For instance, Knudson told of a couple keeping their home at just over 50 degrees in the winter so they could use the savings from their heating bill to afford dental care. She said 54 percent of respondents were concerned they might have to sell some or all of their farm assets to pay for a health care event. Thirty-nine percent of respondents saw deductible costs as a barrier to health care, and another 40 percent cited out-of-pocket costs as a concern.
In figures perhaps more specific to rural America, Knudson said 73 percent of respondents saw health care as a risk management tool in a consistently risky occupation. She also noted that 64 percent reported having a preexisting condition, and 9 percent saw distance to their health care providers as an impediment to care access. On top of that, 74 percent of those surveyed want USDA to represent farmers in the health care conversation.
Johnson said this isn’t the first time health care has been a fly-in issue for NFU; the group also used their membership to lobby for the Affordable Care Act prior to its initial passage. He said the group’s support for the ACA was offered reluctantly, not due to any large issues with the bill, but because NFU’s longstanding policy has been in favor of a single payer solution. Johnson, however, admits “that’s not what we’re advocating on the Hill because there’s no likelihood that’s going to happen right now.”
However, Johnson says Congress needs to address some of the pressing issues in the health care debate.
“What we’re saying is you have to fix these problems and the problems associated with whatever the system is right now,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to fix those problems, you can’t fix those and at the same time get rid of the Affordable Care Act.”
Specifically, NFU’s talking points provided to members stress their support for the current system of tax credits and premium subsidies, expansion of Medicaid, and protections for individuals with preexisting conditions. Targeted areas for improvement include the health insurance marketplace, insurance companies that “cherrypick” profitable marketplaces, and finding support for rural hospitals that have been forced to shut their doors.
While the health care debate has raged throughout 2017, agricultural groups have mostly been quiet on the issue. Lobbyists have undoubtedly kept tabs on developments to see what reverberations might be felt in an interconnected legislative environment, but direct support or opposition to the legislation has been limited. The commodity specific-groups have been quiet, but general farm organizations like NFU and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which supported the version of health care reform that passed the House earlier this year, have chosen to weigh in.
Legislative action on health care ground to a halt after a measure in the Senate came one vote short of clearing a procedural hurdle.
NFU will also be pushing for more money in the farm bill and higher blends of renewable fuels as avenues to address declining farm income.
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