WASHINGTON — Ohio Farm Bureau county leaders went to the Hill to discuss agricultural issues like trade, a new farm bill and regulations, but with the recent introduction of plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, farm leaders added these discussions to their agendas as well.
The Ohio Farm Bureau County Presidents’ trip took place March 13-15 in Washington, D.C., with a full schedule of meetings with legislators and agricultural leaders.
Right now, agricultural policy takes backseat while the health care issue is being sorted out, but health insurance is very much a part of agriculture and small businesses.
Following party lines, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the Affordable Care Act is “anything but affordable,” saying small businesses have seen an increase of 82 percent in premiums.
More providers are dropping out of the program, leaving many counties with only one insurance provider option, which drives up the cost. “What we have now is unacceptable,” said Portman, who added the U.S. pays more than any other country in health insurance and has the least amount of people covered.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told the Ohio farm delegation the Affordable Care Act may not have been the most ideal health insurance plan put in place, but it did attract more Ohioans to sign up for health insurance than in years past. “We need to get more young healthy people in the insurance pool” to drive premium prices down, he said.
U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also spoke to the Ohioans, and explained, as part of the plan to repeal Obamacare and open up free markets for health care, the Trump administration wants to offer association health plans. These plans would “let you buy your insurance through the American Farm Bureau plan if you want to,” he said.
“Let’s take, not just the buying power of all Ohio farmers, why don’t we take the buying power of all farmers in America and allow them to set up a purchasing pool so you can get insurance.” Having the buying pool of farmers across the nation would push costs down for all those purchasing into the pool.
Ryan said the new administration has a full agenda ahead “…oh and then, by the way, we got to get to writing our farm bill.”
Randy Russell, president of the Russell Group, offered an insider’s view on the D.C. political landscape, and said we have a “real chance of getting a farm bill done on time.”
One of the keys to making sure the bill is passed is continuing to link to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
There are only 34 House districts that are a majority rural and 195 that are a majority urban, he explained, which means there are not enough rural voters to pass the farm bill. To keep interest from the urban districts, the SNAP program needs to be included in the farm bill, Russell said.
Brown said his top priorities are centered around positioning the farm economy to thrive under the new farm bill. “I’m concerned about prices,” he said, noting programs like the dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP) isn’t working. But, he said, the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program is working and providing grain farmers the help they need.
However, John Newton, director of market intelligence for American Farm Bureau Federation, disagrees. Newton said there is a major disparity in payments being made to farmers at a county-level (the ARC-County program).
Portman, stressed the importance of reining in government agencies like the EPA.
The EPA has created over 29,000 regulations in the past eight years, many without using common sense and cost-benefit analysis, that had a big impact on our economy, said Portman.
Waters of the U.S. — repealed by the Trump administration — was one of those that demonstrated this overstep of the government and was “unacceptable,” said Portman.
Regulations usually start out with good intentions, but they usually end up not making sense, said U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio.
“The EPA has not been helpful in protecting the environment,” said Gibbs, who added the agency has actually made it harder to obtain the permits necessary to do the right thing.
Russell suggested the Trump administration will be good for agriculture in terms of regulations. “I think there is a real opportunity to get production agriculture back in a seat at the table, instead of taking it in the seat of the pants, which is how it’s been,” said Russell.
Speaker Ryan told the Ohio farmers legislators are working on tax reform that will lower tax rates, lower capital gains and dividends and abolish the estate tax. “Because the last thing we want to do is have the government stand between you and your dream, and the ability to pass your dream on to the next generation,” he said.
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said the Trump administration offers the best opportunity to get the federal estate tax repealed.
Duvall also suggested the Trump administration presents a bumpy ride in trade policy at first, but will hopefully be better for agriculture in the long run.
“NAFTA needs updated and we have to make sure agriculture is represented in the process,” said Portman. Portman said the United States exports 47 percent of its products to only 10 percent of the world. “We have a trade surplus with that 10 percent of the world and a trade deficit with the rest of the world,” he said.
“We have a good opportunity for good trade agreements.”
Duvall said if he could spend more time discussing one topic, it would be immigration and farm labor because, “it is such a big issue for us.”
Jim Rowe, of Tuscarawas County, said many of the dairies in his county employ Spanish-speaking laborers. “They want to be a part of the community,” he said, but they fear living in an environment that does not make them feel welcome.
Rowe challenged Brown to come up with an immigration policy that helps immigrant workers integrate with their communities, so they don’t have to fear a knock on their door that forces them to leave.
Brown and Portman both touched on the severity of Ohio’s opioid crisis and the need for health care treatment programs and education. Ohio has moved to the number one spot in the nation when it comes to opioid deaths. Ohio is also No. 1 in the nation in fentanyl abuse and in the top five for heroin abuse.
The opioid crisis is also the number one cause of crime in Ohio, said Portman. “Fifty percent of the cost of Medicaid goes toward substance abuse,” he said. Portman is working to introduce legislation that focuses on education and prevention of opioid use.
Russell told Farm Bureau members to “expect the unexpected” with the Trump administration. The three key issues for agriculture going forward will be the farm bill, trade and regulations.
“Buckle up. It’s going to be an interesting ride for about three years and 10 months.”