A new study led by a University of Vermont researcher finds that the majority of farmers say the cost of health insurance is a top concern for the viability of their business.
Nationally, nearly three-quarters of farmers have someone in the household who has an off-farm job in order to provide health insurance and extra income, says Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist at UVM.
The 2017 survey reached more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers in 10 states across the country, including Vermont and Massachusetts.
Inwood notes that 24 percent of farmers surveyed purchased a plan on the health exchange marketplace. She says that these farmers are the most at risk with potential changes to health care policy.
"And with all of the pressures that are already existing on farm businesses, and with many operating on very razor-thin margins, health insurance could become the straw that breaks the camel's back," says Inwood.
Inwood also says that dairy farmers are the most likely to be uninsured, because fewer have off-farm jobs.
The average age of farmers nationally is 58, and Inwood says this aging population is particularly vulnerable to increasing insurance premiums. In fact her survey found that just over half of farmers "are not confident they could pay the costs of a major illness such as a heart attack, cancer or loss of limb without going into debt."
Nearly the same amount said they're concerned they will have to sell some or all of their farm or ranch assets to address health costs including long-term care, nursing home, or in-home health assistance.
"What that may do is actually mean that either farmers are going to have to farm longer, or they're going to have to sell their land for a higher price, which may be non-farm development," says Inwood.
"And those are both going to have an impact on the next generation of farmers, by potentially raising land costs and making it even harder for those younger farmers to access and purchase farmland."
The survey also indicated that 74 percent of farmers surveyed felt the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be representing their concerns about health insurance in the national policy discussions, which the agency is not currently.
Inwood says that the survey results have been presented in Washington D.C. to various congressional staffers, and a memo was also forwarded to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
"There's an opportunity to talk about how do farmers fit into national health insurance policy, but also what mean for the 2018 farm bill coming up," says Inwood.
She says her team is coming up with specific suggestions about how the research could inform 2018 farm bill priorities.