There was a phone call today with farm leaders from the National Farmers Union and affiliated groups. Their message to those Senators who are not on board yet with a public health insurance option? Rural America needs a public health insurance option most.

The facts in rural America are stark. Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, noted that rural people spend 22% more on premiums and out of pocket costs than their urban counterparts do. They’re also 70% more likely to be uninsured. And where 8% of the population overall rely on individual health insurance policies, the kinds of policies where the insurance companies screw you the most and therefore make the best profit on, 33% of farmers and ranchers rely on these policies.

As a result, farmers and ranchers in rural America get hit hardest by insurance company abuses. John Hansen, President of the NFU in Nebraska, explained:

Farming and ranching is a risky business, with a low margin.

There is a continual pattern of ranchers and farmers out here who can’t afford health insurance, or have a body part that has a problem not covered by the insurance policy due to pre-existing exclusions. They have an accident or get sick and suddenly, their entire farm is being fed into the medical system. This is not a theoretical problem.

Annie Cheatam, President of the NFU in New England, added:

Farmers are also very eager to provide health insurance to their employees. But they are reporting that their rates are going up 15-20% a year. No small business can sustain that kind of increase over time. Rates went up 90% in Maine since 2000.

States like Arkansas, Nebraska, and Maine have some of the largest rural populations per capita in the country. Perhaps as a result, the NFU and their allies have found broad support for health reform and the public health insurance option. That’s why they are confident that Senators like Blanche Lincoln (who chairs the Agriculture Committee in the Senate and is intimately aware of rural concerns) will find a way to do the right thing. Olly Neal at the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation said:

Senator Lincoln is our friend, and we’re pleased she agreed to debate the health care bill. We think, knowing her, that she’ll find a way to be supportive of it, and we hope it’ll include a public option. We believe there’s a way she can get to that support. The majority of Arkansas has shown itself to be supportive of a public option, and we think she’ll respond to that majority.

Rural America needs the public option perhaps even more than the rest of America does. The Senators from rural states who are thinking about standing in the way need to do the right thing for their constituents.

(also posted at the NOW! blog)

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Jason Rosenbaum

Jason Rosenbaum

Writer, musician, activist. Currently consulting for Bill Halter for U.S. Senate and a fellow at the New Organizing Institute.