May 29, 2010
Oregon agriculture industry sorts health care
By Harris Meyer
Unlike many agricultural employers, Ken Bailey of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles offers his 85 full-time workers health insurance. The orchard and packinghouse operator pays 80 percent of the premium for workers and their dependents.
But like nearly all growers, Bailey's company does not offer coverage to the 600 to 700 seasonal workers it hires for about eight weeks each year to pick cherries and pears on its 2,080 acres. It's estimated that as few as 10 percent of farmworkers nationally have health insurance.
Now, Bailey and other farmers in Oregon and Washington are nervous about the federal health reform law passed in March. It requires employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent workers to provide health coverage starting in 2014 or pay a $2,000 penalty per employee. Bailey, who favored health reform, said he's comfortable with that. Industry groups say most Pacific Northwest growers are too small to fall under that mandate.
But the new law also may require larger farmers and packers like Bailey who meet the 50-employee threshold to offer insurance to seasonal workers or pay the penalty, depending on how the government writes the rules, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. That would be a major new cost for growers already struggling with the bad economy and lower prices for their products.
"It's almost impossible for individual growers to cover seasonals," Bailey said. "It depends on whether there is a reasonable program with a reasonable price." Farmers might even end up paying for coverage of undocumented workers, he said, since they have no reliable way of verifying their workers' legal status because so many documents -- even Social Security cards -- can be faked.
For agricultural employers, though, the biggest concern is whether they'll be required to cover seasonal workers, whom Pacific Northwest growers depend on heavily for their labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops. The law excludes seasonals -- defined as working 120 days or fewer in a calendar year -- from being counted toward the threshold of 50 full-time-equivalent employees that brings employers under the insurance mandate. But a new Congressional Research Service analysis says the law requires employers over that threshold to cover seasonals during the months they are working full-time or pay the penalty.
The seasonal worker issue is just one of many uncertainties facing agricultural employers and workers as the complex new health care law is rolled out.
Comment: This is yet another of the endless examples of how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is so flawed that it cannot ever result in accomplishing the primary reform goal of covering everyone. Seasonal agricultural workers do not fit into a neat slot in the dysfunctional, fragmented financing system that President Obama and Congress have selected for us.
The first question we might ask is should all seasonal agricultural workers in the United States have the health care that they need without having to suffer potentially severe financial consequences? If you support cultural narcissism and reject social solidarity, then go away. You really wouldn't fit in with a group of people who believe that we should take care of each other, and our views are apt to only make you more angry.
Those who do believe that seasonal agricultural workers should have health care the year around, if they need it, understand how complex the rules will have to be to cover them with a system that includes an employer mandate, an individual mandate, and varying requirements based on previous, current and future employment, or unemployment, and based on the impact of vacillations in income as related to sliding-scale eligibility or ineligibility for various programs.
Just briefly touching on some of the policies inherent in PPACA: employers with over 50 full-time equivalent employees will have to purchase coverage for their seasonal employees or pay a $2000 penalty per employee, even though that may be a staggering bill because of a temporary ten-fold increase in the number of employees; since most seasonal employees are uninsured, moving in and out of coverage during the harvest season results in instability of coverage; many seasonal workers are undocumented and thus ineligible for purchase of plans in the exchanges, defeating the purpose of the individual mandate; seasonal workers might be able to obtain care through community health centers, though that depends on having clinics accessible and may mean that important specialized services may not be provided, and the mere existence of such clinics may not fulfill the mandate requirements anyway; though the workers and their families might be eligible for Medicaid on an income basis, that may conflict with the employer mandate; etc.
One of the structural problems is that this fragmented system attempts to assign an insurance product, whether employer-sponsored, privately purchased in the individual market, privately purchased in the exchange, provided by the government in the form of Medicaid, or provided as a safety-net function such as the community health centers, when the eligibility and ability to pay is highly variable between individuals and at different points in time. Fragmentation, disruptions, and voids in coverage are inevitable. We need to sever the individual link to a specific insurance product.
What would fix this would be a single payer national health program with automatic enrollment for everyone, financed separately though equitable tax policies. For purely ethical reasons, we can't accept the new status quo of the highly dysfunctional PPACA. We need to dump it and move on with an improved Medicare for everyone.
For the cultural narcissists who read this far, we would hope to enact a system that would ensure that you will always be able to have the health care that you need, but we would also use the tax system to prohibit you from being a free rider, just as the tax system prevents us from not paying our share of the wars that we oppose.