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Experts address rural health care | News, Sports, Jobs

Staff photo by Fritz Busch

United Farmers Cooperative CEO Jeff Nielsen talks at a Farmfest feature forum about rural health at Gilfillan Estate Tuesday. Farmfest continues Wednesday and Thursday.

GILFILLAN ESTATES — As national news was breaking about hearings to address stabilizing the individual health insurance market, a panel of experts addressed the rural health care dilemma in the Farmfest Forum building Tuesday.

United Farmers Cooperative (UFC) General Manager/CEO Jeff Nielsen’s input should be music to the ears of those struggling with high health insurance premiums.

“We own our own insurance company, It’s been five years since our employee’s insurance premiums went up,” Nielsen said.

He qualified the statement by adding that in order to qualify for the insurance, participants can not smoke or their premiums climb 20 percent. In addition, they must participate in a wellness program.

Nielsen said State Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, helped UFC create its own insurance company. In addition, outside investors in the insurance company include a number of agricultural groups.

Last month, UFC announced it was nationally recognized at one of the Healthiest Companies in America by Interactive Health, a national leader known for its personalized wellness solutions. UFC was one of 156 U.S. companies recognized for helping employees make significant and sometimes life-saving changes to improve their health.

Nielsen said UFC plans to open up its health insurance company to anyone actively involved in production agriculture later this year.

“It’s been a marathon. We’re still in the planning stages. It’s been a long march, but we’re on the path to fix this,” Nielsen said. “If you are a farmer, we will be in touch with you. We plan to have town hall meetings on this in September.”

Congress Tim Walz said he’s optimistic that health care costs are at a re-set point.

“When you buy a new vehicle, you drive it first. If you don’t like it, you can walk away or negotiate. With health care, you pay what they charge,” Walz said.

Dahms talked about the need for affordable health insurance. He cited Minnesota Senate File 1 that included an agricultural cooperative health plan authorization. Gov. Mark Dayton approved the Senate and House versions of the bill in January.

Others called for a more open health care market.

“There is no health care market in my opinion. We’re just re-arranging chairs on the Titanic,” said FBL Financial Group CEO Nicholas Gerhart. “We have to upset some people or we won’t fix things like $30,000 to $40,000 annual health insurance premiums for parents of children with Type 1 diabetes.”

“Insurance is really about risk transfer. Knowledge is power,” Nielsen said. “We need personal accountability, educating people about the little things and transparency to a group that can negotiate costs.”

Walz called for the need to incentivize providers to come to rural areas.

Dahms said the U.S. has 10 percent of the world’s population that buys 75 to 80 percent of the prescription drugs in the world.

“Too many costs are passed on to consumers. We need to slow that down,” Dahms said. “It’s a very complex issue.”

Walz said wellness programs are a great way to reduce health care costs.

“It’s a lot cheaper to prevent diabetes than to try to cure it,” Walz said. “We need to invest more in the National Institute of Health (NIH), not cut its funding. It’s a lot cheaper to prevent Alzheimer’s than treat it.”

Farmfest forums continue with a national ag policy roundtable in the forum building at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Fritz Busch can be emailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.

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