March 30--For many employers in Weld County's agriculture industry, complying with requirements of the Affordable Care Act is proving to be a daunting and confusing task.
Farmers and livestock owners in the county say they're preparing to comply by 2016 -- a deadline that's been extended for the second time -- but many of them are having a difficult time figuring out where to start.
They're in good company, as insurance agents and attorneys say many are finding it difficult to decipher the requirements.
"It's not simple stuff," said John Reeves III, a specialist and regional broker with Aflac who spent last year touring Colorado, discussing with ag producers the approaching healthcare changes. "But they're going to have to get their arms around it at some point."
The Affordable Care Act requires businesses with more than 50 full-time employees to provide reasonably priced health insurance options or pay a $2,000 fee per employee. Employers with fewer than 50 full-time employees may also have to take into account part-time equivalent employees.
Chris Kraft, a Fort Morgan-area dairyman who sits on the board of directors for the Dairy Farmers of America, said he and others in the dairy business "don't even know where to start," and they're not alone.
"We're trying to ask our industry people and attorneys and so on what we're supposed to do, and a lot of them aren't sure either," Kraft said.
At the top of the list of concerns for many employers is the question of how seasonal workers should be counted under the new law.
Joanna Sakata, whose family owns Sakata Farms in Brighton, said they already offer health insurance to full-time employees -- like some others, but without the ability to predict how long harvest will last, it's difficult to figure ahead of time whether seasonal workers will qualify under the new health care requirements.
"When they come into work, we're really not sure how long they're going to work," she said.
Jordan Hungenberg of Hungenberg Produce near Greeley said having to offer health insurance to around 200 seasonal workers each year would likely hurt the family farm significantly.
"If we had to pay health care on all those people, we wouldn't be able to farm, really," he said. "If we had to pay that $2,000 fine, we'd be in a bit of trouble, too."
Like Sakata, Hungenberg said if all of their seasonal employees do qualify under the requirements, his family will have to reconsider how they operate and may have to lean more on automated systems to bring in their carrot and cabbage crops.
"We have to find a way to be more efficient or we would have to be able to get more for our product," Hungenberg said, adding that carrot prices likely won't increase enough to help alleviate financial stress.
Mike Harper of Harper's Feedlot said he operates with fewer than 50 full-time employees, but he's opting to expand his health care coverage options to help workers avoid complications that may come with having to find insurance on their own.
"This is just something that we're trying to be progressive about and get everyone covered," he said.
Harper said while he's not required to change his health care options, he's seen how convoluted the process can be, and he's grateful he had the help of an insurance agent from start to finish.
Kent Peppler, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said his small family farm doesn't cross the 50-employee threshold. He said he is hearing of good things coming from the complex Affordable Care Act, finding positive stories from people who have signed up with the health cooperative that the Farmers Union Foundation sponsors, Colorado HealthOP.
"We're just hearing stories by the dozens that are telling us that people who have never had insurance before are now getting insurance, and we're seeing everything from stints in hearts to liver transplants that weren't getting done because people didn't have the insurance."
Lynn Fagerberg, whose family runs Fagerberg Produce near Eaton, said the most frustrating part of the new requirements is that they seem to keep changing.
"It's a moving target," Fagerberg said.
With added paperwork and costs, Fagerberg said whatever the requirements end up being, he predicts they'll be an added burden to his family operation.
"Just like any other small business, it's going to be a problem," he said.
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