Poetic Injustice: A Gravedigga Fights for Life

The Critical Condition of Health Coverage in the Music Industry

But the amount of support a small organization can provide is minimal. A benefit concert, solicitations from Gee Street, and an "open letter to the entertainment industry" fax-and-e-mail campaign have netted only around $3000—a paltry sum compared to Poetic's mounting debt. Patterson says apathy has been the foundation's biggest stumbling block.

"People don't care," she says plainly. "In this industry, it's like, 'When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, fuck you.' Our biggest struggle is letting people know that this could happen to you tomorrow."

Another problem: Some small foundations like Life Goes On don't consider that funding may disqualify needy individuals from government or public aid. "Sometimes small donations and foundations for the sick person aren't so beneficial," Klabin explains. "Although the intentions are good, if the person's receiving any kind of public assistance, any small amount could disqualify him from a much larger amount. It could end up doing more harm than good."

Perhaps the solution needs to come from within the industry itself. Groups like the American Federation of Musicians offer health care at competitive prices to members. AFM reaches musicians through more than 350 branches across the country and Canada. Martha Learner, assistant to AFM's president, says larger branches and those in states with more generous health care coverage have decent programs. But others, she says, are seriously lacking in funds.

"In some places, providing health care isn't even possible—it doesn't seem affordable, or even essential, to the members," Learner says. "We're bumping into the same problems that everyone else in the country is bumping into with health insurance—the cost."

Even with AFM's extensive programs and the creation of a Health and Welfare task force, Learner agrees that the discrepancy between the cost of health care and some musicians' income puts them in a frighteningly precarious situation. "Some young musicians just don't believe they need it," she says. "They're young, they're healthy. There have been so many times when I've told people, 'Hey, we have this health care program,' and they don't consider it a priority—they don't want to pay for it."

But musicians may have more need for insurance than the average artist or independent contractor. They suffer high rates of hearing damage, muscle stress, fatigue, and depression. And ironically, many of the lifestyle choices that take financial priority over health care—namely, drug and alcohol use and abuse—precipitate problems that agencies like Sweet Relief are unable to alleviate.

But are these problems that unique? Do artists warrant more concern than the average uninsured American? "What makes artists different? Technically, I guess they're not different," says Klabin. "If you want to know why people should care more about musicians having health care coverage . . . maybe they shouldn't. Maybe they should just care about everybody having health care coverage."

Still, who better to increase health coverage awareness among musicians than the artists themselves? Poetic intends to use his experiences to help educate his peers. "I'm on this planet to share things, whether through my lyrics, or one-on-one," he says, hours before beginning another cycle of chemotherapy. "When you make mistakes, any person with ethical fiber will say, 'Let me tell you what happened to me.' Everybody on this planet has something to teach."

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