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LOCAL News :: Health Care : Kansas : Rural Issues : Rural Issues

Losing Ground: Eroding Health Insurance Coverage Leaves Kansas Farmers with Medical Debt

Medical debt is impacting Kansan farm families and threatening health care access. The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund and Kansas Farmers Union release a state-wide report on Aug. 16th.
(HUTCHINSON, KS, August 16th 2006) The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, in conjunction with The Kansas Farmers Union, released a report today that documents a significant level of unaffordable medical bills and resulting medical debt in mostly insured farm families. This report, written by the Boston-based Access Project, reveals that a sizable percentage of 281 respondents from a pool of 600 randomly selected members of the Kansas Farmers Union surveyed last June had medical debt. Virtually all respondents (95%) said that all members of their household had health insurance continuously over the past 12 months. Overall, about one respondent in six (17%) reported having medical debt. However, this statistic conceals a significant difference between the experience of respondents age 65 and over and those under 65: Only five percent of those 65 and over reported medical debt, while nearly a third (29%) of the non-elderly respondents said they had debt. These findings combine to raise the question of whether the health insurance covering many of the younger families in farming adequately protects them from financial risk.

“This report, entitled Losing Ground: Eroding Health Insurance Coverage Leaves Kansas Farmers with Medical Debt, reveals the frequency of medical debt among insured farmers. It raises the issue of whether their insurance fulfills its fundamental purpose – to protect families from the financial hardship that can result from receiving needed medical care” said Kim Moore, President of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund. “The findings call us to focus on health care costs as an important source of the economic pressure many farm families face.”

Moore, whose organization, along with the Kellogg Foundation, funded the study, said the findings should be of use to policy makers. “We suspected that many Kansas farm families are not immune from this problem and medical debt in farm families and the self employed of Kansas might have particular repercussions which were not well understood. As the Kansas Business Health Partnership continues to examine how to help small businesses, good information about what is really happening to people will be important to the policy process. This is particularly true of farm families and other self-employed in Kansas who are struggling to secure affordable and meaningful health care coverage while also meeting other living expense.”

Researchers surveyed 600 randomly selected members of the Kansas Farmers Union. Surveys were completed by 281 farm families (47% of the sample) with nearly equal representation from six KFU regions throughout the state. The survey examined respondents’ medical debt from all sources, including hospitals, doctors, dentists, prescription medications, and ambulance services.

“These data document how seriously medical debt hinders Kansans access to health care,” said report author Bill Lottero an analyst from The Access Project. The median amount of medical debt was $2,500 among those who reported having any. “We were surprised to learn that so many hard working farm families that thought they were protected by their health insurance had fallen into medical debt,” said Lottero.

“We hope this report will stimulate discussion in policymaking circles about the potential consequences of insurance products that shift more of the cost of care onto patients,” said Nancy Kohn, co-author of the report.

Donn Teske, President of The Kansas Farmers Union, stated “We all know that farmers are not generally complainers, they are hard working and proud of what they do and no one, especially farmers, wants to admit when they are failing or struggling with an issue. If we can bring out into the light a need in rural Kansas we are doing our members a service, now the public needs to recognize this need!”

The research found that medical debt commonly hinders farm families’ access to needed medical care. The report found nine out of ten (91%) respondents with medical debt said they owed money to doctors. Nearly as many (84%) owed hospitals, nearly two-thirds (64%) had outstanding prescription costs, half (51%) owed dentists, and 13% had debts from ambulance services. Many respondents with debt reported avoiding care to keep away from accruing new debt and many struggle to pay down their bills using significant portions of their savings, and transferring the debt to credit cards. These findings call into question insurance policy approaches that advocate shifting more of the costs of health care onto policyholders. The survey findings suggest that such approaches may leave increasing numbers of insured people at risk for financial difficulty.

Interested reporters can download the report at www.accessproject.org. Reporters seeking additional information and comment from Kansas Farmers Union (KFU) should contact Donn Teske, President KFU, 785-770-0336 Those seeking more national policy context or comments on the report’s methodology can contact Bill Lottero at The Access Project 617-654-9911 ext 237. Those interested in Kansas state based health policy details can contact Kim Moore, United Methodist Health Ministry Fund 620-662-8586.

Also available are Access Project reports, "Heartache in the Heartland: Kansans Speak about the Burden of Medical Debt," released in March of 2005 and "Playing by the Rules but Losing: How Medical Debt Threatens Kansans’ Healthcare Access and Financial Security," released in January, 2006.

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