Who Deserves Access to Health Care?

In honor of Rural Health Day we want to recognize that millions of farmworkers live every day without health insurance and/or access to even the most basic health care.

Imagine traveling hundreds of miles from your home every season. With only a little money in your pockets, promises of work on a farm further north shift through your thoughts. You arrive to a whole new climate where snow smothers the hills in the winter. No one walking down the road looks like you; you stick out like a sore thumb. Eventually, you find work in lettuce fields, in poultry plants, or in the apple orchards. Suddenly, you get sick, need a prescription for medication, or worse, you have an accident. How will you pay for it? Even more present in your mind, how will you navigate the health care system, which literally and figuratively speaks a language you do not understand?

Only 20% of farmworkers in the United States used any health care services between 1998 and 2000, according to Kaiser’s report on farmworker health care access. Facing the realities of isolation, constant migration, and alienation described above, it is no wonder the numbers are so low. Earning just $10,000 to $12,000 per year on average, migrant and seasonal farmworkers have a difficult time affording health care. Farmworkers are insured at a much lower rate than even their working-class counterparts in other industries with a whopping 85% of farmworkers uninsured, as compared to 37% of the total low-income adult population. While Kaiser’s report was published in 2005, it is doubtful much has changed, since little else has improved for those who harvest out food, including wages and living and working conditions.

Children, in particular, need a variety of health-related resources as they grow and develop into young adults. Disappointingly, children in farmworker families are at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to health coverage than even their parents or other low-income children. To put it into perspective, when it comes to health coverage, 90% of farmworker children are uninsured in a country where 78% of all low-income children have health insurance coverage.

During 2011, certain states opted to take health insurance matters into their own hands. Florida’s leadership moved to privatize all aspects of its Medicaid programs. Further north, Vermont passed a bill initiating the reform process for a single-payer, public health insurance system for everyone in the state, including farmworkers. Green Mountain Care, as it was named, passed the House in March and the Senate in the spring; on May 26, Governor Pete Shumlin signed signed it into law. In Vermont, proponents of health care coverage for people working in that state ran their campaign under the slogan, “Health care is a human right.”

Shouldn’t farmworkers who toil in the fields have assurance that they will not be denied necessary medical attention, whether in the case of an accident or long-term health needs? When 90% of farmworker children and 85% of their parents are not covered by health insurance, how can they overcome the many other barriers to health care access they are confronted with?

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