An amendment to exclude growers from mandatory health insurance for seasonal farmworkers received mixed reviews as the fate of health care reform legislation hung in the balance in mid-July.

Lawmaker seeks to exclude seasonal workers from health care mandates

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., introduced the amendment to the Affordable Health Choices Act being considered by the Senate Health Committee. It seeks to exclude temporary or seasonal agricultural workers from the definition of “employees” for the purposes of determining the size of an employer.

That, in turn, would exempt many agricultural employers from mandatory health insurance regulations.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Farmworker Justice said in a news release that Hagan’s amendment is “morally wrong” and economically counterproductive.

House leaders want to pass a health care reform bill by early August, while the Senate leadership said they plan to stay until mid-August if necessary, said Pat Wolff, tax and health care specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C. However, big questions about how to pay for health care reform make passage far from a certainty.

“It will either be the next few weeks or it will drag out for years,” she said July 14.

Wolff said Hagan’s amendment might be revised in the face of resistance from Democratic lawmakers. She said lawmakers wanted to limit the exemption to those producers who employ 25 seasonal agricultural workers or less.

Status check

An estimated 10% of U.S. fieldworkers in agriculture are covered by health insurance offered by their employers, said Cathy Enright, vice president of government affairs for Western Growers’ Washington, D.C., office.

“If there is mandated coverage for all, that clearly will be an expense the growers have not planned for,” she said.

Of the Western Growers members currently covering their fieldworkers, she said the average employer allocates 13% to 15% of their payroll on health care. However, looking at the minimum benefit requirements of the plans now discussed in the House and Senate, she said that health care expenses could are projected to increase 40% to 60% of agricultural employer payrolls.

Farm leaders were objecting to the cost of employer mandates in both the House and Senate bills and raising questions about health care access in rural areas.

“If you require employers to get insurance but you don’t get cost under control, that’s a double whammy,” Wolff said.

Possible solutions include exempting seasonal agricultural workers from insurance mandates, providing  tax incentives or other incentives to help people pay for insurance and lowering the “pay or play” fee for employers who don’t provide health insurance.

In terms of seasonal workers, Enright said solutions must be offered that address the expense of insurance and the administrative challenges inherent in a migrant work force.

“Both in the House and in the Senate, the language we are looking at works from an urban office environment, but it does not address what goes on in rural America and the agricultural community and so we are hoping to bring those issues forward in the debate,” Enright said.

In a position statement released in July, Farm Bureau said health care is “primarily the responsibility of individuals.”

“We oppose compulsory national health insurance and any national health plan and favor instead tax incentives and market reforms that will expand health care coverage,” the group said in a statement to lawmakers.