What happens when you’re a farmer without good health coverage?

Good health coverage became a luxury for many small businesspeople in this recession. So imagine owning a small business in one of the nation’s most dangerous sectors.

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That helps to understand the results of a new report showing the consequences of medical debt carried by some family farmers in Minnesota and six other Midwest states.

Health coverage was one of the top concerns during our recent online forum featuring entrepreneurs from MPR’s Public Insight Network.

But it creates a special kind of burden for farmers. Many rely on off-farm jobs as their source of health coverage. The danger inherent in agricultural work can make good coverage expensive and force some hard choices.

“There are no fair/affordable options for farmers and other self-employed persons to access affordable health insurance or health care. Why not?” Kenyon farmer and Network source Rae Rusnak asked us last winter.

Rusnak, a widowed single parent, has insurance but told us recently,

If I take a full-time off-farm job in order to get health care benefits, then my farm business will suffer, I will have to pay child care costs, and I will not get to spend as much time with my child. I choose to be with my child and pray that my health insurance rates do not go any higher. We are already experiencing the sting of high orthodontist bills.

Another Network farmer, Gary Brever of Parkers Prairie, said he’s on MinnesotaCare, subsidized coverage for low- and moderate-income families.

“I’m very appreciative that we are elgible,” he said. “Over the next year our farm income may rise to the point where we may have to pay increasing premiums but for all I know we will still be elgible for health care through MNCare. I have not looked into alternatives if our coverage is dropped.”

Brenda Jannsen, a small beef and dairy farmer in southeast Minnesota told us several months ago her family was considering quitting farming — health care was one of the major reasons.

Sadly, that’s coming to pass. Jannsen told us a few days ago they’ve begun to sell off the dairy herd.


MPR and the investigative reporting outlet ProPublica queried thousands of Americans earlier this year to find out where the health care system is succeeding and failing. More than 500 people responded.

Check out the responses mapped below, then add your own story.

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