Both as consumers who buy health insurance for themselves and their families, and as small-business owners who must manage employee benefits, farmers and ranchers believe the health care bill passed by Congress yesterday could have serious consequences for rural health care and for small employers, according to the leader of California’s largest farm organization.

“Family farmers understand firsthand the need to improve the health care system, but the bill Congress passed will be a huge undertaking both for our nation and for individuals,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said.

He noted that many farmers struggle to find affordable health care coverage as they struggle to keep their small businesses afloat during the recession. But in its effort to extend health coverage to millions of uncovered Americans, Congress imposed mandates and penalties that Wenger said could undermine that goal.

“The new taxes, mandates, growth in government programs and overall cost of the bill trouble farmers and ranchers,” he said. “We agree on the need to rein in health care costs, but we prefer a step-by-step approach with fewer mandates and more incentives, to give people greater individual control over their health care.”

Wenger said that, despite assurances, farmers and ranchers remain concerned that reduced Medicare reimbursements could squeeze rural hospitals and health care facilities that already face serious financial challenges. He said Congress had ignored a request from farm groups to provide greater clarity about how the new legislation will affect farmers, ranchers and rural residents.

“As people who operate small businesses, farmers and ranchers will do their best to meet the requirements of the new law, and Farm Bureau will provide them with information they need to comply,” Wenger said. “But the new coverage mandate poses real financial challenges for family farmers. This additional mandate, on top of the many others family farmers must cope with, will complicate their efforts to keep their farms and ranches sustainable.”

Source: California Farm Bureau Federation

It’s difficult to generate a lot of enthusiasm for Sunday night’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass health-care reform. Not that the system doesn't need reformation -- it does. But I wonder if we have found the best path to do so. As Paul Wenger points out, these sweeping changes will have a huge impact on businesses and individuals alike. No matter the size of your dairy, get ready to alter your business plans to accommodate these changes — even though it still isn’t certain exactly what the changes will be or just how you, your business and your employees will be impacted. All that is certain, is that there is a steep price tag attached to this legislation.

The Wall Street Journal, in its March 21 editorial, makes the following prediction: “While the subsidies don't start until 2014, many of the new taxes and insurance mandates will take effect within six months. The first result will be turmoil in the insurance industry, as small insurers in particular find it impossible to make money under the new rules. A wave of consolidation is likely, and so are higher premiums as insurers absorb the cost of new benefits and the mandate to take all comers.” This is just what dairy farmers don’t need as the industry works to overcome serious economic challenges.  — Shannon Linderoth, associate editor, Dairy Herd Management