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A patron unloads corn at a Hanley Falls Farmers Cooperative Elevator facility near Montevideo. The Hanley Falls FCE and the Glacial Lakes Cooperative, Murdock, are offering their members access to a group health insurance program made possible by new legislation allowing farmers to form groups for insurance. Forum News Service file photo

Minn. co-ops offering group health insurance to farmer members

HANLEY FALLS, Minn. — Two central Minnesota cooperatives are among the first in the state to make group health insurance policies available for farmers.

Glacial Plains Cooperative, based in Murdock, and the Hanley Falls Farmers Cooperative Elevator are offering group health insurance for their members through Land O'Lakes cooperative.

Legislation approved at the onset of the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature opened the way for cooperatives to make group insurance programs available to farmers. Some cooperatives, the Hanley Falls Cooperative among them, had previously offered group health insurance programs for its members.

"We did it once before: The only issue is the Affordable Care Act put the kibosh on it,'' said Bill Doyscher, assistant general manager of the Hanley Falls Farmers Cooperative Elevator.

Under the Affordable Care Act, known to many as Obamacare, farmers were among the 4 percent of Minnesota's population who purchased individual insurance policies. Doyscher said those buying individual policies experienced high premiums and deductibles, and saw steadily rising costs.

Many spouses are working off-the-farm so their families can access affordable health insurance through their employers, Doyscher said.

Land O'Lakes was able to experiment with forming a group insurance program for farmers last year. It offered the program only to its dairy producers, and it worked well, according to Doyscher.

Land O'Lakes provides a group health insurance program for its employees as well as the employees of other farmer-owned cooperatives that are also Land O'Lakes members. It is using this as the template to offer the new group health plan for farmers.

Doyscher said it offers a range of several policies, from a catastrophic, high-deductible policy to lower-deductible versions. It's part of the Preferred One health network, which means enrollees will find many available providers throughout the state.

Land O'Lakes partnered with Gravie, of Minneapolis, to make the program possible. Gravie was started in 2013 as a health benefits marketplace to assist individuals and businesses in comparison shopping for health care plans, according to a report on the company in Twin Cities Business.

Doyscher said Gravie will assist members who want to compare what is available through the Land O'Lakes program with offerings by other insurance providers.

At this point, Land O'Lakes and a separate farmer cooperative, known as 40 Square, are offering group health insurance policies for farmers in Minnesota under the new legislation.

Neither the Glacial Plains nor Hanley Falls Cooperatives have any ownership stake in the program being offered through Land O'Lakes.

"We don't have any so-called stake in the game, no benefit to the co-op,'' Doyscher said. "It's one more thing we can offer to our membership.''

Membership is a must, however. To obtain the health insurance, a farmer must be a member of either the Hanley Falls or Glacial Plains cooperative. The cooperatives will verify membership to the insurer.

Doyscher is confident there will be a lot of interest in the insurance. Since the cooperative announced its plans, he's been fielding phone calls from interested farmers every day, and this during a hectic harvest season.

The Hanley Falls Farmers Cooperative Elevator is hosting information meetings on the option at 3 p.m. Nov. 9 in Cottonwood and at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Kilowatt Community Center in Granite Falls. The Glacial Plains Cooperative is hosting informational meetings at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 and 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at McKinney's in Benson.

The enrollment sign-up period is Nov. 20 through Dec. 8.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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