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More MS news articles for June 2003

Visual, performing artists often lack health insurance

Sunday, June 15, 2003
By Jonathan Houghton
St Joseph News-Press

After spending five years as a full-time mom, Kimberly Lord started to rediscover her first love — theater.

Having landed a well-known New York agent to represent her, it seemed as though Ms. Lord was on course to have the acting career she’d always dreamed of.

But she’d no sooner begun the day-to-day tasks of a working actor, traveling to New York City from her New Jersey home to audition for plays, when her life took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“I collapsed one day,” she said. “I didn’t faint — I lost my balance and my strength and everything, and just collapsed.”

When Ms. Lord, now a St. Joseph resident, was diagnosed in 1993 with the blood cancer multiple myeloma, her bad news was only magnified by the realization that she didn’t have health insurance to cover her medical bills.

“It was a real surprise to us when something like that popped into our lives,” she said. “… We felt like we could handle most everything that could’ve come our way.”

For those of us with full-time jobs, health insurance is something almost taken for granted. Premiums are taken out of paychecks, and covering a visit to the doctor’s office often is as simple as pulling an insurance card out of a wallet. But for professional actors, musicians, dancers and visual artists, whose standard of living can often be only as good as their latest gigs, health insurance is seen by many as an unaffordable luxury.

“By definition, artists’ revenues tend to be irregular, and that’s something that makes them a little more difficult to cover,” said Wally Bloss, executive director of the Allied Arts Council. “I know a lot of people who are just going without coverage, and that’s a dangerous position in today’s world.”

“Something like 2 percent of the musicians make most of the money,” agreed singer and songwriter Victoria Williams. “But you’ve got a lot of musicians who aren’t making very much money. So when they make money, they use it to pay rent, usually, and they don’t have health insurance.”

According to a study done by the Actors’ Fund, a New York-based nonprofit organization, the percentage of uninsured members of the arts community is 30 percent, twice the national average. A separate survey done on jazz musicians in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans by the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University’s Teachers College put the figure even higher: 36.7 percent. For the majority of these artists, being uninsured is almost a way of life, said James Brown, managing director of the Actors’ Fund’s Artists’ Health Insurance Resource Center.

“What we expected was people going in and out of insurance,” he said. “What we found are people who’d been uninsured for a long time, who’d given up on trying to have it.”

That was the case for Ms. Williams, a California-based musician who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990. Though her popularity had grown to the point where she was touring at the time with renowned guitarist Neil Young, she was without a record contract and had little money saved to pay her mounting medical bills.

“I was scared,” she says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Ms. Williams was lucky enough to have friends in high places. The 1993 CD “Sweet Relief: A Benefit For Victoria Williams” featured some of the top names in the music industry, including Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum and Lou Reed, performing Ms. Williams’ songs. The proceeds went toward Ms. Williams’ medical bills.

“They just did it as a project of love,” she said. “I felt so blessed that all these people had come together for me.”

Ms. Lord was similarly fortunate. Soon after her diagnosis, two New Jersey-based music groups put on benefit performances to help pay her medical bills, which by that point were more than $10,000.

“I didn’t have any other choice,” she said. “I didn’t want to be asking, and I didn’t want to be needing it, and I didn’t want to be taking it.”

Few artists even have the option. But until they get sick, Mr. Brown says, many still drag their heels in learning about the other health-insurance opportunities available to them.

“To think about health insurance is to think about your health, and to think about disease,” he said, “so why think about it?”

COBRA benefits, which can provide coverage for 18 months after leaving a full-time job, might be the best-known option but also one of the least affordable for struggling artists, said Actors’ Fund Executive Director Joseph Benincasa. Last year, he said, the Actors’ Fund spent around half a million dollars helping individual artists who couldn’t afford their COBRA payments.

“The reason they’re on COBRA is because they’re not working, and they can’t afford it,” Mr. Brown said.

The Actors’ Fund’s Web site, at, lists artists’ unions and guilds in Missouri and nationally — of which there are many — that offer health coverage to their members. But to be eligible for coverage, artists often have to work more than a set number of weeks a year, or earn more than a certain income. In some unions, Mr. Brown said, it’s not uncommon for only 30 percent of members to even be eligible for benefits.

St. Joseph actor Bob Britton has great things to say about his health coverage through the Actor’s Equity League — that is, when he’s eligible for it. Actor’s Equity members receive free coverage only if they work 12 or more weeks out of the year in union-sanctioned theaters, and this year, Mr. Britton fell short of the minimum.

“It sounds real sweet, like a real cush deal,” he said. “However, getting that 12 weeks’ work a year — it’s not easy. It’s very competitive.”

Other artists, like Gower, Mo.-based sculptor Brent Collins, are able to sidestep the issue entirely by gaining coverage through their spouses. Mr. Collins spent 25 years of his life uninsured, from the beginning of his career in 1968 until his marriage in 1993, and said he’s lucky to have suffered no serious health problems during that time.

“Fortunately, I married in the season of life where (health issues began to become an issue),” he said.

St. Joseph jazz singer Kathleen Holeman has never suffered from any major health problems. But when she left her advertising job in 1998 to pursue music full time, she knew what she had to do to be prepared. She searched around and found a bare-bones individual health-insurance policy that she could afford.

“Being a woman, I had to make sure not to get pregnant,” she said. “It’s all a choice about what you think is most important to pay. I just considered it a mandatory bill, something I have to have.”

Ms. Lord overcame her blood cancer in 1996, as well as a subsequent battle with breast cancer this past August. She credits her health both to a positive mindset and to an unusual treatment program based in German homeopathic medicines.

“Even if I’d had insurance,” she said, “they wouldn’t have covered it anyway.”

Though her husband’s job with a health-food company has provided health insurance for the family in recent years, he plans to leave the job later this month to help Ms. Lord concentrate on her singing career. The bills from her first bout with cancer have been paid off, but Ms. Lord still owes around $20,000 from the second.

“We’ve got a lot of debt to pay off, with the medical bills,” she said. “That’ll get taken care of.”

The “Sweet Relief” project raised so much money for Ms. Williams that the overflow has continued to pay her medical bills, which run into the thousands of dollars each month. Monthly shots of the drug Copaxone have helped slow the progress of her disease, but that might soon change — though she’s had health insurance since being signed to Atlantic Records in the mid-’90s, Ms. Williams was recently dropped from the record company.

“(My insurance is) running out (this month), and I’m not on Atlantic anymore, so I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

Copyright © 2003, The News-Press