Category Archives: View Point

View Point – Lu Nelsen

New Program for an Old Problem

By Lu Nelsen, Center for Rural Affairs

For many rural folks, colder weather means higher energy costs. It’s the time of year when energy efficiency and conservation can make the biggest difference. As you search for ways to save money while keeping the house warm, consider taking a long look at your local utility.
That’s because Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced the first loans under a new Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program. These loans can be used by rural electric cooperatives across the country to invest in techniques and technologies that can reduce energy use.
The best part? Interest rates for these loans are some of the lowest available. By financing energy efficiency and conservation at such affordable rates, this program creates new economic opportunities. That can mean a lot to small businesses and rural communities alike.
The first to take advantage are the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and Roanoke Electric Membership Corporation. North Arkansas Electric Coop will use this funding to expand their energy efficiency program, providing funds for energy efficient lighting, insulation, a geothermal installation, weatherization, and other energy saving measures. Roanoke Electric Membership Corporation will now finance appliance, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system replacements for residential consumers.
This program is a big deal. One of the most common problems folks run into when considering an energy efficiency or renewable energy project is a lack of affordable funding. This makes financing available to help people in rural areas invest in projects that keep the house warm while putting money back into their community.

Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

View Point: Improvements Made to USDA Beginning Farmer Loans

USDA recently announced several changes to Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs, changes designed to help more beginning farmers and ranchers. The new “interim final rule” will increase the Microloan limit from $35,000 to $50,000. This program provides a simplified application process and a seven year payback.

Microloans can be used for approved operating expenses, such as seed, fertilizer, utilities, land rents, marketing, distribution, living expenses, livestock, equipment, hoop houses, tools, irrigation and delivery vehicles.
USDA is also changing the “experience” requirement for FSA Direct Farm Ownership loans. Previously, applicants had to prove they participated in the operations of a farm for at least three years. Beginning farmers across the country identified this restriction as a real barrier. It is not reflective of current realities in which new farmers enter agriculture.
The change will allow beginning farmers and ranchers to substitute one year of that three-year requirement with a formal farming apprenticeship, operation or management of a non-farm business, leadership or management experience while serving in any branch of the military, advanced education in an agricultural field, and significant experience in a farm-related agricultural career.
USDA also proposes changing the types of farming entities eligible to apply, potentially opening the door to non-majority investors who are not actively farming or managing the operation. We’ll watch these changes closely. The deadline to submit public comments on these changes to the USDA is December 8, 2014. Contact Traci Bruckner, tracib@cfra.org, for more information.

View Point – Lu Nelsen

Rural in the Digital Age

By Lu Nelsen, lucasn@cfra.org, Center for Rural Affairs

The internet is such a powerful tool in modern life, it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine going through their daily routine without using it in some capacity. But for some people in rural communities, accessing the internet isn’t as easy as just connecting to the wifi network.
I recently had the chance to fly to Washington, DC along with other rural advocates to talk about net neutrality and broadband access in rural areas. We shared stories that we heard from rural folks across the country with representatives and regulators, and discussed how we could improve service to rural communities.
Most of us already deal with less than desirable service, and the possibility of losing an open and neutral internet would present even more challenges to rural communities. Without net neutrality, internet service providers could make broadband service faster for those that can pay a premium, while others could be pushed into a ‘slow lane’. Right now, it’s up to regulators and legislators to insure that we all have the same access to internet.
It’s important that our representatives keep hearing stories from people who live in rural areas and want better access to broadband internet. Rural small business owners, healthcare workers, schools, farmers, ranchers and other rural residents benefit from internet service that is fast and reliable. We need net neutrality to keep rural America out of the slow lane, and better broadband access to open the road to new opportunities for rural people across the country.

View Point: Take Control of Your Health Care: Consumer Driven Health Plans

There’s a saying, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” That phrase aptly describes the latest option in health insurance: consumer-directed health care (CDHC). CDHC’s are a different approach to health care, but one that promotes education, involvement and smart decisions. It can help you to take charge of your care and introduce you to a world of savings and healthful activities.
Through education and active participation in your health, you can control your health care costs. With a CDHC plan, you can determine when, where, and who you see for medical care. And with this particular plan type, there’s more value and savings on health care coverage and expenses.
There are three parts to a CDHC plan:
High-deductible Health Plan (HDHP) – A high-deductible health plan lowers monthly premiums in exchange for higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. You pay the full cost for health care expenses, up to your plan deductible, instead of paying copayments. Once you reach this limit, your plan pays benefits. It is important to know that eligible annual physicals, well-child exams, immunizations and cancer screenings like mammograms, are typically covered at no cost share, under an HDHP.
Health Savings Account (HSA) – This is an account that lets you set aside pre-tax money to pay for qualified health care expenses, including those subject to your health plan deductible. You must have a qualified HDHP to be eligible for an HSA. There are total contributions limits set by the Internal Revenue Service limits.
Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) – An account funded by your employer to help you pay for health care expenses. Although not required, it is typically paired with a lower-cost, higher-deductible health plan (HDHP).
Rather than paying for a traditional copay health plan, you can save on premiums, and put the savings into your HSA or HRA. By doing this, you can choose how your money is spent. And when the need for health care services arises, CDHC encourages consumers to shop for care the same way you shop for a washing machine, a computer or a car – through research and talking with your doctor. When you are involved in your care, you will have more information about procedures, the quality of care you are receiving, and the associated costs.
To learn more about consumer-directed health care and the plans that accompany it, try searching out some informational websites. Sites like Wellmark.com/WhatMatters are a great place to start to learn more about how you can start taking charge of your health care.

ViewPoint: A Healthy Start to the School Year- Back-to-School Physicals

It’s that time of year again. In a few short weeks, students will return to the classroom, and back-to-school preparations are in full swing. Readying your child for a successful school year involves more than simply purchasing the trendiest clothes and supplies.
One of the first steps in ensuring students have a safe and healthy start to the year is taking them to get a back-to-school physical examination. These exams, also known as well-checks, are especially important because they are often the only time a child visits the doctor each year. Physical exams not only detect potential health problems before they arise, but they can also provide an assurance of good health.
Back-to-school physicals typically consist of:
Routine Physical—During a routine physical, the physician will record your child’s height and weight, blood pressure and pulse. In addition, the physician will perform a comprehensive check of your child’s heart and lungs, abdomen, skin, eyes and ears, nose, mouth, teeth and throat to ensure that no abnormalities exist.
Medical History Review—The doctor will review the medical history of your child and any close relatives to detect illnesses or diseases which might run in the family. This portion of the exam will also include listing any medications your child is taking, as well as previous or current illnesses.
Preventative Screenings—Through routine examinations and blood tests, doctors have the opportunity to monitor a child’s overall wellness and screen for problems such as high cholesterol, diabetes and lead poisoning.
Immunizations—Children are required to receive certain immunizations before entering public schools. Back-to-school physicals are the perfect time to make sure that your child is up-to-date on all necessary vaccinations.
As the first day of school approaches, finding time for a visit to the doctor may become difficult. Therefore, it’s important to schedule your child’s physical exam as soon as possible.
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield makes it easy to locate a physician in your area with its online “Find a Doctor” search tool. Searches can be filtered based upon a doctor’s location, specialty and health insurance plans accepted. To access this tool, and to learn more about health insurance, visit www.wellmark.com.