Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Cooperative Network still hopes to launch health insurance program

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 01/14/2014 1:10 PM

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Cooperative Network continues to try to launch its health care cooperative for agricultural producers in the midst of an uncertain health care regulatory environment.

"We feel like we're in a rowboat in the middle of a storm on Lake Superior," said Bill Oemichen, president and CEO of Cooperative Network.

Cooperative Network has spent the past five years working on 40 Square Cooperative Solutions.

40 Square Cooperative Solutions is a joint effort of Cooperative Network, a cooperative trade association for Minnesota and Wisconsin cooperatives, United Farmers Cooperative of Winthrop and AgStar Financial Services, based in Mankato. The three cooperatives united to work on the issues of health care access, choice and cost for those involved in agriculture.

In 2010, Cooperative Network submitted its initial application to the state Commerce Department. This spring, they ran into a couple obstacles that arose because of the way Minnesota law was being interpreted, Oemichen said.

One example: Cooperative Network wasn't allowed under Minnesota law to talk to farmers about 40 Square unless it already had 1,000 farmers signed up. How do you sign farmers up for a program if you're not allowed to talk to them, Oemichen asked.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, carried legislation that allowed Cooperative Network to get preliminary approval from the Commerce Department to pre-market the plan. That took effect July 1.

On Sept. 20, Cooperative Network submitted updated actuarial information, a list of what kind of coverage it would offer and other information to the Commerce Department, Oemichen said.

The health care environment has changed dramatically since they began working on 40 Square, yet Oemichen said the health care cooperative is still relevant to Minnesota farmers.

The median net farm income for farmers was $187,200 in 2012 and in order to qualify for a subsidy through MNSure, a family of four can earn no more than $94,200. Most farmers won't receive the federal tax credit available through the Affordable Care Act, which takes away the incentive to buy through MNSure, he said. Many of the plans have a high deductible and out-of-pocket cost, Oemichen said.

He said he thinks there is a role for the health care cooperative in the private marketplace.

One thing he's learned is that he's not in control of the calendar. It's up to the state and federal regulators to determine when 40 Square launches. Cooperative Network will continue to work with federal and state regulators to advance 40 Square, but its launch date remains unknown.