As Congressional leadership and the Trump administration work towards a compromise on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the country’s oldest general farm organization is urging additional improvements to the deal that could help to reduce health care costs and protect rural jobs before it is sent to Congress for approval.
In a letter sent to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson emphasized the value of trade agreements to agricultural communities. “Access to export markets is critical for U.S. family farms,” the letter reads. “Canada and Mexico are the leading export markets for U.S. agricultural products, and USMCA would maintain those important relationships.”
Though international export markets have provided economic opportunities for family farmers and ranchers, the free trade framework that has dominated U.S. trade deals for the past 25 years has not been without its shortcomings. “Farmers are increasingly dependent on off-farm employment to make ends meet,” said Johnson, “but many rural manufacturing and other jobs are moving to foreign markets with cheaper labor and lower environmental standards.” He recommended that Congressional leadership include proposals that would address those issues. “Labor, environment, and enforcement standards must be strengthened to help to keep jobs in rural communities.”
Johnson also expressed concern about the implications of USMCA for rural health care. “The increasing cost of health care, a top concern among NFU members, is eating into already shrinking farm revenue,” writes Johnson, adding that the deal may exacerbate the problem. As written, USMCA would grant pharmaceutical companies marketing exclusivity for biologic drugs for a minimum of 10 years. If approved, this rule would prevent Congress from acting to hasten the entrance of lower-cost generic drugs to the market.
Farming is a notoriously precarious profession – in 2014, there was an estimated 58,000 adult farm injuries. Yet nearly half of farmers are not confident they could cover the costs of treatment for a major illness or injury without going into debt. All Americans should have access to effective health care, but given the added risks of agricultural professions, it is particularly critical that legislators work to improve coverage and affordability in rural areas. USMCA’s prescription drug provision would “limit the actions Congress can take to reduce prescription drug prices,” noted Johnson, and as such, it “must be rectified to allow for future reductions in health care costs.”