Wisconsin lawmakers hear arguments on Farm Bureau health coverage bill

Wisconsin lawmakers heard from supporters and opponents of a proposed Farm Bureau health care coverage bill.  The Assembly Committee on Insurance held a public hearing Thursday at the Capitol on Assembly Bill 860, which would create an exemption in state insurance laws to allow Farm Bureau to offer health care benefits.

Farm Bureau’s Jason Mugnaini spoke to Brownfield after the hearing. He says farmers are often in and out of eligibility for Affordable Care Act subsidies because it is based on gross income and not their margins or actual profit. “The way that we’re calculating farm income for purposes of eligibility of a subsidy in the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is a challenge, and it’s been a challenge for fifteen years. Farm Bureau has just taken an opportunity to say alright, we’re done waiting for the federal government. We’re going to do something that we’ve seen work in other states.”

Mugnaini testified that the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare expanded coverage for many individuals, but for farmers, accounting, farm income, commodity volatility, and other factors created a system of limited options for farmers, leaving many to choose between having no coverage or getting employment off the farm to obtain health coverage.

Opponents of the bill criticized the proposal for not including preexisting conditions required in the Affordable Care Act.  Wisconsin Farmers Union calls the Farm Bureau plan “substandard coverage” and discriminatory against preexisting conditions.  Tommy Enright with Wisconsin Farmers Union testified that farmers have unique needs and comprehensive coverage is vital to ensure farmers have access to the medications, treatments, and specialists that they need, and Farmers Union is concerned the Farm Bureau products would be confusing or misleading, and not cover the farmers’ needs.  Enright also says Farmers Union is opposed to the language in the bill that eliminates all other farm organizations from offering health care coverage.

Farmer, State Representative, and committee member Travis Tranel asked Enright if the bill was changed to allow their group to offer similar plans if they would change their position, and Enright said no because they want affordable health care for all and carving out niches for one group is “a slippery slope.”   Michelle Ramirez-White with Wisconsin Farmers Union says they support a single payer health insurance system and the existing state and federal insurance regulations.

Representative Tranel says farmers understand the problems with the Affordable Care Act and says many are forced with choosing between expensive insurance or no insurance, and most would take this so-called second-class insurance all day long as an affordable option while also giving farm family members the opportunity to stay on the farm instead of working off the farm for health insurance.

Republican Representative Clint Moses and State Senator Patrick Testin authored the bill, and testified at the hearing.

If Assembly Bill 860, formerly known as Legislative Reference Bureau bill 4676 becomes law, Farm Bureau could offer the health care coverage now offered in Tennessee, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Texas, and South Dakota. 

Tennessee Farm Bureau’s Benjamin Sanders testified his state has been offering the coverage since 1947, and successfully operates under his state’s self-insured statute since 1993.  He says Tennessee has a 98% retention rate, and members can decide month to month if they wish to participate in the plan.

Audio: Jason Mugnaini discusses Farm Bureau’s proposal and Assembly Bill 860 with Brownfield’s Larry Lee after the Assembly Insurance Committee hearing.

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