The Dangerous Truth Awaiting Artists Who Rely On The ACA

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The Dangerous Truth Awaiting Artists Who Rely On The ACA

Last week, several noted musicians—Kelley Deal, Spoon, The Mountain Goats, Superchunk and Merge Records among them—joined up with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Future of Music Coalition to raise awareness about the HHS’ #CoverageMatters campaign, which aims to spread awareness about how much the Affordable Care Act has helped people with non-traditional jobs of every stripe gain access to basic healthcare.

The aim is to take the conversation away from political rhetoric and put an everyday face on what the ACA has meant to so many people, and how dangerous its repeal would be for millions upon millions of Americans and their families. President-elect Trump and Speaker Ryan have a rare agreement in their shared disdain for “Obamacare,” a troubling stance that’s made all the more puzzling when one considers the Kaiser Foundation’s recent report that showed that roughly 6.3 million ACA enrollees live in districts with Republican congressional representatives, while 5.2 million live in Democratic districts.

As someone who is both heavily involved in music and a freelancer writer, I know all too well the travails and anxiety that so many creatives must endure when considering something as simple as a doctor’s visit. Still, I was shocked to learn that a musician on Kelley Deal’s level—she of The Breeders and R. Ring—had never had insurance before the ACA. The fact that Deal, who has achieved success that most musicians can only dream about, has never had healthcare says it all about the depressing truth facing most artists and those relying on non-traditional forms of income. If someone who has toured the world, sold countless records and has had a couple of bona fide hits can’t get coverage, what chance do the millions and millions of lesser-known musicians have?

A 2013 survey conducted by the Future of Music Coalition and the Artists’ Health Insurance Resource Center found that 39% of artists (musicians, dancers, theater actors, film/media artist were surveyed) paid for their own insurance (compared with just 6% nationally) and that 43% did not have any healthcare at all (compared with just 18% nationally). Of those without healthcare, 88% said the reason they lacked proper health insurance was the cost. The study also showed that the more time artists spent on their art, the less likely they were to have insurance. It’s a dangerous conundrum for creative people of every stripe, as they’re often forced to choose between their art—their reason for existing as well as their job—and whether or not they can afford to go to the doctor regularly.

We spoke with a few artists about how the ACA has changed their lives for the better, and the hard reality of life without it: from having to sacrifice their coverage so their kids could be taken care of, to family members dying tragic deaths that could have been prevented with coverage, to simply being afraid to visit the doctor because of the ruinous financial consequences. No American should fear going to the doctor for such a reason, period. It is a shameful blight on our society that this is even being discussed, but here we are.

Laura Balance, bassist of Superchunk and co-founder of Merge Records:

“I personally have been lucky to be insured for most of my life. There were definitely times when I was younger and on tour a lot that I did not have health insurance and it was bad! I remember one of my bandmates getting so sick on tour that he could not play several shows, but he did not want to go to the doctor because he was afraid of what it would cost. Luckily a friend of ours in Olympia, WA took him to a doctor and got him some antibiotics. Once Superchunk had some level of success we made it a priority to get a group health insurance plan, but not all bands have the wherewithal or the means to do that.

“As one of the owners of Merge, I have always been concerned about our bands and their ability to get healthcare. Until the ACA went into effect it really seemed that if you did not pay dues to join some sort of musicians union it was going to be very difficult for you to get health insurance at any kind of reasonable rate, and very often those union dues were unaffordable to the average musician. Merge got involved in the Artists Day of Action to help save the ACA because the ACA has not only helped innumerable artists get coverage, but also all sorts of other people who are desperate for healthcare. No one should be without health insurance.”


Kelly Fleek, multi-media artist, bassist of The Spider Ferns:

“Prior to the creation of the ACA, my husband and I, both multi-media artists, small business owners and members of the Seattle-based downtempo electronic rock duo, The Spider Ferns were without health care insurance for 20 years. I fractured my spine in three places, was partially paralyzed for 6 months from the waist down and came within a fraction of an inch of losing my ability to walk again. I spent nearly two years unable to stand to play the bass on stage. The ACA provided me the stability to use important diagnostic tools such as MRI’s followed by years of physical therapy that I would never have been able to afford otherwise. Because the ACA allowed for pre-existing conditions, I was able to secure insurance even though I’d been injured a few months before it passed.

Before the ACA, we’d only been able to cover our children… far more important to us than ourselves of course, but we often worried about what would happen to us without insurance should a catastrophic event befall us, and then it did… I never would have recovered so well without access to quality care. Today, though I still have chronic pain, I can stand on stage, dance and entertain my audience and I am still full of gratitude for that. We are deeply troubled that Congress wants to destroy such an important piece of comfort and stability for much of the country and we worry even more about those that have even fewer financial resources than ourselves. Medical bills are one of the number one causes of people succumbing to homelessness and that is a great tragedy.”

Mike Wiebe of the Riverboat Gamblers:

“In January of 2016, with the help of an Austin musicians organization called Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, I waded through hours of bureaucracy and paperwork to get signed up for the ACA. It was annoying and I had to jump through a bunch of hoops and I considered saying “ahh fuck it” a bunch. I haven’t had healthcare most of my adult life and I’ll just go ahead and remember to wash my hands twice as much this year. I’ll be fine!! Fortunately patient people who are smarter than me coaxed me into following through.

Then, March 14th of 2016 I fell off a bar onto my back while performing and collapsed my left lung. I managed to get back up on the stage and finish our remaining song because I am a consummate professional—and exquisite dumb dumb. Later that night, writhing in pain, I tried to google which hospital to go to and where. My main fear, even greater than my injury was “how much is this going to cost?” Now, even with the health insurance, it was crazy expensive… I was lucky enough that a friend set up a gofundme page and despite me getting it taken down too soon (out of a drugged sense of guilt) the kindness of people that listen to the silly songs of my bands kept me from being completely devastated financially. AND THATS WITH THE INSURANCE.

When I went to set up my health insurance for 2017 the whole process was much more smooth. There was still bureaucracy and the occasional skip through the flaming hula hoop, but it seemed better. Now, I don’t know if that’s an overall improvement of the ACA. I’ve heard a few complaints about it and the ones that seem rational are all monetary based. I get that..if you had some kind of health insurance and it went up, I can see people complaining. On the other hand, I’ve talked to a bunch of people who hate the ACA and the reason is that they don’t like Obama. I’ll say ” Oh, yeah … I know you don’t like Obama (I’ve read your Facebook) but how has the ACA affected your insurance?” To which they will respond “It hasn’t, BUT OBAMA IS GOING TO DO BAD TO ME”. Or something to that effect.

Maybe there is a better plan for everyone. It’d be great to for everyone to save some money, especially hardworking, flamboyant entertainers who misjudge a crowd’s ability to catch them. I guess my advice to everyone is: Wash your hands twice as much this year. You’ll be fine!!!

Chuck Windig, author of Star Wars: Aftermath:

“My father died of easily detectable and treatable prostate cancer because he retired early, so he couldn’t get Medicare but also had a pre-existing condition (high blood pressure) that prevented him from getting health insurance. Healthcare was therefore expensive, so he figured he’d do without any doctor visits or preventative care for about two years. It was in that time that my father—a Republican, by the way—had prostate cancer progress aggressively. He died from it. I’m a full-time writer who supports my family, so presently I’m thankful that the ACA—while imperfect—grants me the opportunity to keep them insured at a rate that is affordable and without having to worry about dropped coverage due to pre-existing conditions. If the ACA goes away, I don’t know what happens to my access to affordable health care, and I may end up as my father did, and my son may end up as I did. We could come full circle, dreadful as that would be.”


And the problem isn’t just isolated to artists and creative types—anyone with a freelance or non-traditional job or payment structure is put in peril by the president-elect and the GOP’s current course of action. Take for instance marketing consultant Jeremy Williams’ plight:

“I’m a freelance marketing consultant with a wife and two kids. The ACA has helped us afford to purchase health insurance on the individual market at a time when we don’t have employer-provided benefits. If the ACA is repealed, I’m worried that the plans available will be more expensive (without subsidies), cover fewer things, and that it may become financially unsustainable to be self-employed. More than myself and my family, I’m worried for the millions of other people who will lose their coverage. I have friends who have pre-existing conditions and I know it’ll be extremely difficult, if not impossible for them to obtain private insurance without the ACA.”

As for what individuals whose healthcare—and health—is being put in jeopardy can do, Kevin Erickson, the National Organizing Director of the Future of Music Coalition, passed along this advice:

“Even if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act in 2017, it is still currently the law. We don’t yet know what changes may ultimately come or when they will go into effect, but the best course of action right now is to get coverage and hold on to it as long as you can. That means:

—If you currently have health coverage through the Marketplace or Medicaid: you should re-enroll for 2017. (For some plans, re-enrollment is automatic; check with your provider.) Additionally, if there’s any doctors’ visits, procedures, etc that you’ve been putting off, it’s probably smart to get those scheduled now and take full advantage of your current coverage.

—If you are currently uninsured: you should try and obtain coverage for 2017 through the Marketplace or through Medicaid, depending on your income, family, and the state you live in.

—Either way, you need to act quickly, as open enrollment ends on Jan 31.

—The most important thing we can do right now is to contact your senators and representatives and tell them no repeal with without immediate replacement, and no replacement plan is acceptable unless it covers everyone, doesn’t raise costs, and guarantees the same benefits we have now.”

That seems like a logical enough request, although if Donald Trump’s rise has proven anything, it’s that logic and empathy have long been tossed out the window. Here’s to hoping millions of Americans’ access to life-saving healthcare isn’t carelessly tossed out along with it, because this is not a political arguement to be won or lost—millions of Americans’ very lives are at stake.