A program designed to improve the health of farm families is expanding into Waupaca and Outagamie counties.
The Rural Health Initiative Inc. began serving farmers in Shawano County in 2003. Business, health care and agricultural leaders created the Shawano County Rural Health Initiative to help bring health care directly to the farm.
Through the Rural Health Initiative program, a nurse visits farmers and their families in their home and performs basic health risk assessment tests. The nurse also provides information to improve the family’s health and offers suggestions for a healthier diet or referrals to other medical providers.
“This one of those things you don’t want Shawano County to have by itself,” said Ben Brancel, Wisconsin’s secretary of agriculture. “Expanding it into surrounding counties is a wonderful venture.”
Brancel spoke at the program’s promotional event Jan. 31 in Manawa.
“Most farmers say they are fine, but they don’t know their health stats,” he said. “That is one of the thoughts that never comes into their heads until there is a health crisis.”
Brancel is concerned about the health of Wisconsin farmers. He was a dairy farmer for 25 years and still lives on his farm, which is now owned by his son.
He said the Rural Health Initiative will provide farm families the “knowledge to know how to be healthier.”
“Most people have no idea how much farmers are paying to get health care insurance for their families,” Brancel said.
He noted that some health insurance premiums can cost farmers up to $2,800 per month.
“The health of our farm families is in crisis,” said Rhonda Strebel, executive director of the Rural Health Initiative.
“Most farmers either don’t have health insurance or have insurance policies with high deductibles, so we are helping them save costs by performing these basic tests and helping prevent problems before they become too serious,” she said. “By going out to the farmers directly, we are saving them time. Farmers are busy and many of them are committed to their work – they don’t always think about their own health.”
More than 18 percent of Wisconsin dairy farm families have no health insurance, while another 41 percent have high deductible plans that provide only major medical coverage, according to Strebel. Additionally, four of out five farmers do not have health insurance that covers checkups and preventive care.
Strebel said rising insurance costs prevent many farm families from seeking help. Without insurance, farmers and their families are more likely to skip medical treatment for minor accidents or chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, she said.
“We like to call our program ‘kitchen wellness’ since it’s a good place to discuss all aspects of health, such as physical, emotional, and financial wellness,” Strebel said. ”We bring the care right to them, which helps break down the barriers to health care access.”
She noted that Shawano County farmers have embraced the program with 96 percent of farmers and their families following through after receiving referrals to other providers. Eighty-five percent of farmers reported being very satisfied with services received through the Rural Health Initiative.
Several years ago, Waupaca County had received a three-year grant for the Waupaca On Wellness (WOW) program, which had nurses visiting homes in the rural areas. When the grant ran out, many people were disappointed.
Rita Richardson, of rural Waupaca, said the program was “a God sent.” Every three months, the visiting nurse tailored her visits around the farm’s work schedule and often was running tests in the kitchen by 7 a.m.
“I was amazed at what you can do in the kitchen,” Richardson said. “I had immediate lipid results.”
“I was expecting to have that benefit for a long time,” she added.
Richardson noted that her physician trusted and endorsed the WOW program. She expects the Rural Health Initiative program will be a good replacement. The best part is that the new program is funded by community support, not by a limited grant.
In Shawano County, Strebel said the Rural Health Initiative serves 325 farm families, or about 40 percent of the county’s total farm families.
Since 2003, the Rural Health Initiative program has visited 700 individuals and performed over 3,000 health screenings. Over 225 life-threatening acute cases have been detected.
According to Strebel, tests in farm kitchens have helped detect pre-diabetes and high cholesterol conditions that would have developed into crisis situations without treatment. The visiting nurses have also referred people for counseling for domestic abuse, suicide prevention and other crisis services.
Farm families need extra medical attention since farming is ranked as one of the top three most hazardous occupations in the country and they often lack convenient access to health providers, said Dr. John Mielke, MD, a member of the Community Health Action Team.
”We’re really excited about the program growing and expanding into Outagamie and Waupaca counties,” said Dr. Mielke, a retired Appleton cardiologist. ‘The program fulfills a real need for the rural population since male farmers are usually more focused on their own animals and their health, rather than their own.”