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Published October 26, 2010, 08:19 AM

Health reform expands coverage options for small farmers, ranchers

FORSYTH, Mont. — The health care reform law passed six months ago has caused quite a racket.

By: Marvin Quinlan Jr., Patricia DeJong and Jess Alger,

FORSYTH, Mont. — The health care reform law passed six months ago has caused quite a racket.

Here in rural Montana, the facts in support of reform speak much louder.

In the next few years, coverage will be extended to more than 100,000 uninsured Montanans, including many family farmers and ranchers who typically are self-employed and have few affordable options in the individual health insurance marketplace.

This is a change that can’t come soon enough for the nearly 20 percent of neighboring farmers and ranchers who now go without coverage.

No longer will these hard-working families need to rely on bake sales and benefit auctions to raise money when a medical emergency strikes.

The new law extends coverage through various means, including a new marketplace, an “insurance exchange” in which residents can compare plans at a “one-stop shop.” Insurers will be competing for business and playing by new rules that will ensure higher quality and more affordable coverage.

Expanded and improved

For the 564,000 Montanans already insured, coverage also will improve. Most notably, the rules prohibit the denial of coverage based upon pre-existing conditions, ban new plans from dropping coverage when people get sick — a practice known as rescission — and remove lifetime and annual caps on insurance coverage.

Small businesses are the economic driver in all communities, but even more so in rural areas.

Employee insurance has become increasingly unaffordable in recent years, which has led to more uninsured people in Montana.

Starting this year, the new law gives small business owners a big incentive to extend health insurance coverage to their employees by providing a tax credit for up to 35 percent of their health insurance premiums.

These are businesses with fewer than 25 full-time employees earning wages less than $50,000, which means almost all of Montana’s small businesses.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rural benefits

The benefits of health reform extend beyond insurance reform and affordable options.

Because access to care challenges many rural communities, the law also provides funding for training programs to increase the number of primary care doctors, nurses and public health professionals in underserved areas.

In addition, more funding will go to community health centers, which provide quality care at a discount based on the patient’s income.

Some of the new law’s provisions go into effect immediately. Others will take some time.

Montana Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen is moving forward with a high-risk pool and other implementation strategies in a sensible and timely manner.

In 2008 alone, there were 900 bankruptcies in Montana related to health care.

As reform takes shape, success will be felt in our pocketbooks and seen in the number of bake sales and benefit auctions raising money — not for a neighbor’s medical bills but for Little League uniforms and church congregations — as it should be.

Editor’s note: Quinlan, of Forsyth, Mont.; DeJong, of Libby, Mont.; and Alger, of Stanford, Mont., served on an ad-hoc rural health care action committee during the national debate on health care reform.