EPHRATA, Pa. — (Lancaster Farming) "We strongly support the public option," said Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president in a teleconference on Nov. 24 with regional farm leaders and the media.

Our current health care system is "enormously uncompetitive" and hampers our ability to compete globally with industrialized nations who benefit from national health care systems, said Johnson. "Americans pay twice as much for our health care" as those nations do. That is, those Americans who can afford to pay for insurance at all. Johnson cited inadequate health care in rural areas -- and lack of affordable coverage for farmers in particular -- as "long-standing problems" that the Union has been trying to address. Now NFU has high hopes that the current bill in the Senate will pass what it characterizes as "much needed reform."

Discussing issues of lack of competition and barriers to health care coverage among farmers was a panel of ag leaders: John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union; Annie Cheatham, president of the New England Farmers Union; and Olly Neal, vice president of the Arkansan Land and Farm Development Corporation.

The skyrocketing cost of health care and the strain it puts on farm families to find work off the farm or buy expensive single policies was a common refrain.

Insurance premiums on average have risen more than 75 percent from 2000 to 2007 in Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine and Nebraska. The increases are even greater in the individual and small group market available to most farmers.

Hansen said in Nebraska, where agriculture is the largest industry, is challenged by health care costs. He said he was troubled how some have "villanized the public option." The choice of a public option he felt would contain costs and improve access.

"If the public option is not the best way solve the lack of competition problem, then what is the alternative? No reform is not an answer we can afford," said Hansen.

In Maine, said Cheatham, health care companies recently asked for an 18-percent increase in costs. The state insurance commissioner agreed to a 10-percent hike. The incensed companies responded by suing the state.

"Farmers are suffering because of these cost increases," she said. "That's why we support the public option."

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