The Hazards of Being a Musician Without Health Insurance
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Fan, What do the more responsible touring musicians use for medical care? What kind of plan is best for covering illnesses and hospitalizations for the road, and at home? In what ways can a musician make informed choices about coverage and cost effectiveness? Todd
Dearest Todd, Insurance is, unfortunately, a luxury for the majority of artist, musicians, and DIY music biz workers as it is for many low-income people in America. Being a sole-proprietor, freelance or contract worker--as many working musicians are--means buying private insurance, which given the cost and the ebb-and-flow nature of freelance income can be downright prohibitive, which may explain why musicians are uninsured at twice the rate of the rest of America.
You are right to be concerned about coverage for the road. Aside from being in a vehicle 12 hours a day, there's the moving of heavy equipment, repetitive stress injuries, smoky bars, getting nodes on your vocal cords, being in close proximity to scary wasted people who want to fight. There are the perdurable lesser issues of punishing your immune system with not enough sleep and gnarly road food, STDs from tour strange, allergies when you invariably have to stay with those people whose house is shrouded in dog hair. (Two of the more serious injuries I've had happened on tour--I got cornea abrasions on both eyes from a sleeping bag zipper in the van loft, and re-broke my tailbone in Berlin.)
Weighing the risk of injury against the cost is only natural, but it's a bad idea. You need insurance. By law, we are all about to have to have it come 2014, so start researching now. I know for a lot of musicians, coming up with an extra money every month for insurance might force you to get a day job, and forget about touring all together. The fact that the uninsured musicians I know get by on a luck, vitamins, free clinics, purloining their dog's leftover Amoxicillin 'scrip, or rounding up a few spare painkillers from friends speaks to the dire reality of the uninsured musician.
I reached out to Alex Maiolo, who is a musician and a health insurance consultant for the Future of Music Coalition, and he had some specific advice: "Insure for the worst case scenario." Maiolo suggests that young, healthy musicians without families get plans with higher deductibles, because what you want is a stop loss for catastrophic and emergency situations. "It's going to be easier for musicians to come up with the $5,000 deductible payment via benefit concerts, " says Maiolo, "rather than half a million dollars for uninsured treatment after the fact."
While it would be lovely to have some real carte blanche PPO plan and pay $10 for a doctor visit, he suggests a high deductable can take $50-80 off your payment a month and maybe you pay $30 for a doctor visit instead. Maiolo says that given that most musicians are young and relatively healthy, regular wellness visits are not why you should be buying a plan. Also, most any plan is going to cover emergencies regardless of whether they happen at home or on the road.
Some resources to start your quest: It is worth spending some time on healthcare.gov, and utilizing their insurance finder, which helps you find what public and private insurance options are available for you. I actually used it to find coverage for my little family--it's more useful than one would anticipate a government site being.
The FMC offers, by appointment, a half-hour over-the-phone consultation to help musicians navigate some options and figure out a plan for coverage. The consultants work pro bono since funding was cut, so I am going to insist that once you confirm your appointment, you kick down a $50 pledge via the FMC site for this person helping you get your life correct. Another great resource is the Artists' Health Insurance Resource Center which can direct you to plans in your state, free clinics, further help from musician's organizations and unions--it is extensive.
If you are signed to a major label or a subsidiary, you may qualify for health insurance though AFTRA. This applies to "royalty artists" as well as session vocalists, and the plan also covers families, not just individuals. Check out aftrahr.com for more information, they also have a helpline. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM), a union for working musicians, also offers any array of plans to union members. There are a handful of unions and professional organizations you might already be associated with that help members with referrals. You can also just check on the FMC's website for a run down on all of this and more.
A postscript: The terrible news of Jason Molina's passing came as I was finishing this week's column. In 2011, his family started a fund to cover the mounting debt of Molina's uninsured stints in rehab. If you are a musician or work in the music industry and are battling addiction, MusicCares (1-800-687-4227) is a resource for those seeking sobriety and also provides financial assistance for rehab.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.