Sunday, May 4, 2008

Health Insurance and the music community

Some very sad situations in the jazz world recently have put this at the forefront of my mind, and I would like to share some thoughts and information. In the past month, two great jazz musicians, bassist Dennis Irwin and saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo were both diagnosed with spinal and brain cancer, respectively. Both are acclaimed musicians who have established themselves both in New York and internationally, are widely recorded, and still unable to afford health insurance. While there has been an outpouring of support for both musicians, including numerous benefits for both around the world, fellow musicians and fans can not carry the weight of this problem and give others the money they need to get through these ordeals. (For further reading about both cases, there is an excellent article by Nate Chinen in the New York Times about Irwin and D'Angelo and the larger problem at hand. You can contribute to both via websites set up for them that can easily be found. D'Angelo, who I don't know personally, but lives in my Brooklyn neighborhood, has been keeping a very candid diary about his recent diagnosis, surgery, and treatment that is very brave and powerful).

It is not news to anybody to say that this country urgently needs to create a universal system like the rest of the civilized world. Sure there will be problems and it will reek of ugly, ugly socialism, but we are at a point where this issue is bankrupting the country and affecting lives. Unfortunately, the wheels of a government run by special interest money grinds slowly. Though some degree of change seems to be on the way, I do not have much hope that even a new, possibly Democratic administration in the White House will take the leap to create something truly visionary and profound in the near future. It will take a continued pressure from the outside, and a real mass education in the way that the rest of the world is operating on this issue and the deep cost our bankrupt system inflicts on our society before we move towards a single-payer system.

Meanwhile, what is a freelance musician or artist to do about things? Few of us make enough money to pay the ridiculous monthly premiums here in New York, and the high deductible plans leave people with substantial bills to pay and only moderate savings every month. Personally, over the past few years sporadically I would do enough union work to temporarily qualify for their bare-bones plan which does not cover hospitilazation and has a $5,000 annual cap, but it had way to many holes in it for anyone to rest assured, so despite having it I was living largely uncovered for a while. However, I recently found a program in New York state that not many people seem to know about called Healthy New York. If you have not had health coverage for the last 12 months, make less that $25,000 a year and are ineligible to receive coverage through an employer, you can get full coverage through a choice of private insurers through this program. Once you qualify (the application is very easy), the state subsidizes your coverage by agreeing to pay for catastrophic coverage (over $10,000 a year I believe), thus substantially lowering your monthly premium. You get the same private health plan that you would get for a lot more money otherwise. I registered through a provider called Atlantis and my monthly premium is $200, still a substantial sum of money and beyond reach for many, but far less than any other coverage options available. Even the popular and widely advertised Freelancer's Union coverage costs far more for a higher deductible plan, and much more complicated to apply and qualify for.

This Healthy NY plan is definitely a band-aid and not a permanent solution. It still does not address the enormous waste in our system, but it is there and is a small step forward, and I hope more people check it out so we don't have to see too many more stories of uninsured musicians facing life-threatening health emergencies and huge medical bills to pay.

Here is Andrew D'Angelo's website:

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has set up a fund for Dennis Irwin:

Here is the Healthy New York website:

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