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Co-op health care coming to you?

While the debate about health care reform continues in Congress, an Upper Midwest health cooperative group patiently waits to see how its farmers’ insurance program might become a national or state option.

Bill Oemichen, president and CEO of Cooperative Network, Madison, Wis., expressed support for the Senate Finance Committee’s action that passed a national health care reform bill that includes cooperatives as a key component. The Senate version of the bill that passed includes the committee’s language.

“Although specific details have yet to be written, we are very pleased the cooperative business model has been included [by the Senate] as a part of national health care reform,” Oemichen says. “Wisconsin and Minnesota are home to more health care cooperatives than any other part of the country, with more than 1.7 million participating members.”

Key Points

• A provision in the Senate health care bill would help create health

• Wisconsin has a successful health co-op program for farmers.

• Efforts are under way in Minnesota to unveil a similar program.

The finance committee authorized $6 billion in funding for the Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan program to foster the creation of nonprofit, member-run health insurance co-ops that serve individuals in one or more states. CO-OP grantees would compete in the reformed individual and small-group insurance markets on a level playing field with other plans. Federal funds would be distributed as loans and grants. Loans would be provided to assist with startup costs, and grants would be provided to meet state solvency requirements.

A farmers’ health co-op

Oemichen says that Wisconsin legislation passed several years ago was looked at as a national model by the Senate Finance Committee. The Wisconsin legislation was modeled in part after pilot project purchasing alliance legislation passed by the Minnesota State Legislature in 2002. The Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives pursued the legislation that today is known as Co-op Care. Under this new law, the Farmers’ Health Cooperative of Wisconsin was launched in 2007. FHCW is a group purchasing co-op, member-owned and member-governed, with most members being dairy farmers. The co-op’s goal is to stabilize health insurance rates and offer affordable plans to farmers. The co-op plan also provides coverage for work-related injuries and does not deny coverage for eligible members (i.e., state residents age 18-63 who are actively farming or in agribusiness).

With FHCW, farmer members have six insurance plans and a comprehensive provider network. “They can choose from a high to a low deductible, and two of the plans are Health Savings Account eligible,” Oemichen says. More than 2,500 members are enrolled in the health insurance, with the average age around 36 to 37 years old.

Other states have taken an interest in Wisconsin’s program, including Minnesota. Efforts have been under way for a few years to introduce a similar plan, called the Minnesota Health Care Cooperative, for farmers. The program is still working through the state’s regulatory process, Oemichen says.

For more information on Wisconsin’s program, visit

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of THE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.