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Farmers Need Health Insurance to Thrive

“If something happens to me on the farm, God help me, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Jamila Norman, Patchwork City Farms

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States–the CDC estimates that 58,000 injuries occur on farms annually. Farming is twice as deadly as law enforcement and five times as deadly as firefighting. Despite this, many farmers don’t have health insurance. If they become sick, injured, or require hospitalization, they’re in danger of losing their businesses, their land, and their livelihood. Farmers routinely forego annual medical checkups and ignore chronic pain because they can’t pay to go to the doctor.

Georgia’s refusal to extend Medicaid coverage to lower income residents coupled with skyrocketing costs of monthly insurance premiums mean that many farmers simply can’t afford health insurance.

When Joe Reynolds began farming over a decade ago, health insurance was the last thing on his mind. But after a few years working in the field, he began to question whether or not farming was even a viable occupation–no benefits, no retirement fund, no sick days, and no health insurance. He wondered how many farmers quit the profession because they couldn’t just keep hoping they would never get sick?

In 2014, Joe approached Georgia Organics and asked them to investigate providing benefits to farmers. Georgia Organics partnered with a group of graduate students at the Emory Goizueta School of Business to begin the tedious work of researching cost share systems and health insurance. The students stumbled on the Kaiser Permanente Bridge Program, and in 2017 with support from Food Well Alliance, Georgia Organics re-hired their former Farm to School intern Perri Campis to lead Georgia Organics’ partnership with Kaiser and the Bridge Program.  

Leading Georgia Organics’ work with farmer health insurance is personal for Perri–her story closely echoes Joe’s experience. “Health insurance was a reason I didn’t get into farming,” she says. “I wanted to start a farm on family land after college, but there was too much risk. How was I going to pay for healthcare? Retirement? A mortgage? So I asked myself, how can we get farmers the same benefits that a more traditional salaried job would have, so people aren’t deterred from becoming farmers the way I was because there’s just too much risk?”

Perri led the Bridge program in its successful pilot year. Eleven farmers and two of their dependents received twenty-four months of free Kaiser health insurance and case management. Farmers were finally able to go to the doctor, receive care, and not worry about what would happen to them and their businesses if they got sick or injured.

In October, Bridge enrollees, Georgia Organics staff, farmers, partner organizations, and Food Well Alliance gathered for the premiere of the short video, “Farmers Need Affordable Health Insurance,” created by filmmakers Anthony-Masterson with funding from Food Well Alliance.

The video details the benefits of the Bridge program, but also illuminates the glaring lack of affordable health insurance options for farmers living outside the Bridge service area.

The atmosphere was somber as farmers went up in front of the crowd to talk about their experiences when the video ended. They talked about the constant, nagging worry that without health insurance, they could lose their businesses over a brief hospitalization or a small surgery. They talked about insurance rates skyrocketing from $40 a month to $400 a month. They talked about the frustration at seeing the state of Georgia’s stubborn and self-defeating refusal to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid to cover low-income residents.

“I need insurance. I don’t have kids, I don’t have a partner, I don’t have a backup. If I have an accident, I could lose everything I have worked so hard for,” said Terri Jagger Blincoe of Ladybug Farms, standing up in front of the crowd.

“Farmers don’t do this for the money, we do this for others,” states Reggie Ramos of Grow with the Flow, “we overlook healthcare to look out for the community–that’s why we need this.”

The farmers enrolled in the pilot year of Bridge knew they were fortunate.

“Bridge has been amazing. Insurance was getting too expensive, but we really needed it,” explained Zach Richards of Levity Farms.   

Despite the success of the pilot year of the Bridge program, this video premiere marked only the beginning of Georgia Organics’ work to develop affordable healthcare options for small farmers.

“I’m hesitant to call this event a celebration since there’s still so much to be done,” Perri said. “But it’s an acknowledgement of this first milestone. It took a lot of work from a lot of people–from Emory, Kaiser, Food Well, and Georgia Organics–to get this pilot going. It took four years. We need to take time and recognize the people who worked so hard, but also keep the momentum going. We need to look for other resources and tools to give our farmers. We need to advocate more and to look towards what’s next.”

So what is next for affordable healthcare for farmers? What do farmers do if they don’t qualify for Bridge?

“The big bold answer is that we’ll expand statewide,” explains Perri. “We have a cost calculator developed by Emory  that shows us how much we have to raise to enact a cost-share health insurance program across the state. We have the pilot year of Bridge under our belt, so we know what an insurance program entails and have learned what that process is like. We’ll use this information to inform expansion work. We just need the funding.”

Healthy farm businesses need a healthy farmer, and Georgia Organics is proud to offer this program with our partners at Kaiser Permanente.

Perri urges all farmers who meet the initial qualifications to contact her about enrolling in Bridge. “Even if you aren’t sure if you’ll qualify, you should still ask. The application can look intimidating, but it’s very easy to fill and only takes about twenty minutes.”

Interested in Bridge? In order to qualify, you must

  • Be a full-time farmer
  • Be a Georgia Organics farm member
  • Have an annual income of less than 100% of the federal poverty level
  • Live in one of the Kaiser Bridge service area counties: Bartow, Butts, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Lamar, Newton, Paulding, Pike, Rockdale, Spalding, or Walton

Open enrollment for health insurance ends on December 15, so if you are interested in Bridge, act sooner rather than later. Learn more about Bridge here, and reach out to Perri at perri@georgiaorganics.org to see if you qualify.

From now through the end of December, we’ll be writing about and spotlighting our farmers and the work of our farmer services team. We hope you keep reading, and to invest in our farmer services efforts please click here to contribute $100, $50, $25 or any amount that’s meaningful to you.

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