National, regional and local member-owned cooperatives already contribute to the stability of the rural economy and provide vital services in rural communities.
Many in rural America still only think of cooperatives in the tradition sense – agricultural, electric, and telephone. Even among these people who are familiar with one form of cooperative many have no idea that the cooperative approach also works for housing, health care, transportation and retail stores. But there are many of these cooperatives already providing significant benefits to senior citizens living in rural areas. For examples:
Purchasing Cooperative for Small Community-owned Hospitals
- Small community-owned hospitals are valuable to the entire community, but they are especially important for the very elderly and the frail residents who aren’t mobile enough to use the services of larger health care facilities in neighboring urban areas. What may enable many of these hospitals to keep their doors open is their membership in a national purchasing cooperative for community-owned hospitals called VHA, Inc. With 2,200 hospital member owners, VHA helps its hospital members train care providers and control costs by negotiating prices for equipment, supplies and services from preferred vendors.
Health Services Cooperatives for Small Community-owned Hospitals
- On a smaller scale, community-owned hospitals may also get valuable service from their membership in local or regional health services cooperatives that provide personnel services, billing and other services to their member hospitals. Organizations like Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperatives (RWHC), in Sauk City, WI, help small rural hospitals identify and recruit healthcare professionals, as well as perform such services for its members as insurance reimbursement services and doctor credential verification.
Pharmaceutical Supply Purchasing Cooperatives for Independent Drug Stores and Pharmacies
- There are the independent drug stores and local pharmacies in rural communities. Many of these small businesses have been struggling to compete with the big box discount stores 20 or 30 miles away. If they are still in business, it is probably due to their membership in a pharmaceutical supply purchasing cooperative. The largest, The Pharmacy Cooperative, gives its 650 independent drug stores and pharmacies in 22 states a voice with manufacturers, vendors and the government. Prices have been negotiated that are at or better than prices offered by the chains.
Drug Purchasing Cooperatives and Purchasing Pools for State Agencies
- A number of states and groups of states have created innovative state and regional drug purchasing cooperatives and purchasing pools to control the costs of publicly supported health programs. Since 1985, Minnesota has had a pharmacy purchasing cooperative for use by state agencies, cities, townships and counties. In Iowa, a drug purchasing cooperative established as a federal demonstration project, available to all Medicare-eligible seniors, saved its members nearly $1.9 million in the first year. In New England and in the South, multiple states have formed purchasing pools to achieve similar reductions in cost.
Consumer-owned Food Cooperatives
- Unfortunately, as rural economies struggle and as larger chains become regional magnets for consumer shopping, too many small towns are losing their mom-and-pop retail stores. Many residents can drive to neighboring communities to shop, but many of the community’s less mobile residents, including many seniors, are left with no place to buy the basics. Here too, a cooperative can provide a solution, as it has in Barneveld, WI, population 1,088. After they lost their last remaining grocery store in 2001, a motivated group of citizens decided to do something about it. In collaboration with Cooperative Development Services, one of the USDA-funded cooperative development centers, residents engaged in a feasibility study and business plan for a cooperative grocery store. Members made loans to the co-op for the initial investment and the local bank provided additional debt financing. In July 2004, the community celebrated the opening of its new cooperative grocery store. The 324 owners live in Barneveld and decisions about the business will be made locally, not by investors or managers in a distant city.
Health Insurance Purchasing Cooperatives
- Considered high risk by insurance companies, a significant number of self-employed farmers and their families cannot afford to have private health insurance. There may be a solution to this phenomenon for future generations of seniors who come from the farming community. The latest attempt to address this problem has both federal and state dimensions. Co-op Care, signed into law by President Bush, dove tailed with laws passed in Wisconsin and Minnesota that establish regional health insurance purchasing cooperatives for farmers and rural small business owners. When the program went operational in the spring of 2005, members of these cooperatives were able to negotiate directly with insurance plans for affordable coverage for themselves and their families.