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With the percentage of uninsured musicians tripling the national average, a local organization takes the HINT

The struggle for musicians' health insurance 

Hard prescription

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click to enlarge A diagnosis and inexpensive prescription could have helped Drew Glackin beat the thyroid condition from which he died in January. - PHOTO BY LINUS GELBER
  • Photo by Linus Gelber
  • A diagnosis and inexpensive prescription could have helped Drew Glackin beat the thyroid condition from which he died in January.

This weekend, a pair of Raleigh benefits will arrive too late for Drew Glackin: Glackin was a gifted New York multi-instrumentalist, a member of the bands the Silos and Tandy, and an in-demand touring musician. He was known for his support of other musicians, both onstage with his simpatico playing and off with an engaging personality built for instant friendships. But Glackin died in January of a thyroid condition that went undetected, at least in part, because he couldn't afford health insurance.

"Drew's case is a particular tragedy because this was the kind of thing where a really inexpensive drug on a monthly basis would have saved his life," says Alex Maiolo, a member of local acts Violet Vector & the Lovely Lovelies and Hi Fi Sky and a licensed health insurance agent. This weekend's benefits will support Health Insurance Navigation Tool, or HINT, the national program Maiolo runs with Connells drummer Chris Stevenson. HINT provides musicians information about affordable health care options.

These shows are destined to bring to mind a massive 2003 benefit in Raleigh for Alejandro Escovedo, an alt-country hero who was drowning in medical bills while fighting hepatitis C. That show was just one in a national network of concerts benefiting Escovedo. An upcoming series of shows in support of Hacienda Brother Chris Gaffney, who succumbed to liver cancer on April 17, and upcoming benefits for Duane Jarvis and Candye Kane as they too battle cancer underscore the health insurance crisis wreaking havoc in the American music world. HINT hopes to treat the problem proactively.

"While the music community is always quick and eager to jump in to help when one of their own falls ill, it begins to feel like throwing oneself up against a brick wall," says Triangle musician Caitlin Cary, who helped arrange the Escovedo and Glackin benefits. "The best-organized benefits raise tens of thousands; someone sick in the hospital without insurance often needs hundreds of thousands. It's high time we take on the real monster and do what it takes to get ourselves insured."

According to Maiolo, between 15 and 16 percent of Americans don't have health insurance, but 45 percent of musicians are uninsured. And out of the 55 percent of musicians that actually carry health insurance, only 5 percent have insurance because of their job in music. That 5 percent is largely comprised of orchestra members and session musicians, not your average touring rock 'n' roller. The remainder have health insurance through another job or because they pay out of pocket for an individual plan.

So why don't more musicians carry health insurance? "Affordability is no doubt the biggest issue, but that's surely not the only stumbling block. I think so-called creative types tend to find the whole system frightening," Cary says. "We procrastinate because we dread the task of trying to make sense of the insurance industry."

Joe Swank, whose Zen Pirates are on Sunday's benefit bill at Sadlack's, has health insurance as part of that "95 percent of 55 percent" group with health insurance through another job. But frustrated by deductibles and co-pays he describes as "pretty outrageous for something that eats up that much of each check," Swank sounds ready to give up on trying to make any sense of it. He calls his coverage Heart Attack Insurance. "Unless I have something that major, it's easier to suffer through as opposed to forking out the expenses of tests or specialists," he says. "It's pretty much just there for catastrophes."

Cary believes issues particular to the musicians lifestyle make the usual insurance difficulties that much more perplexing. "We travel for our work, and so we need coverage even when we travel," she explains. "Some of us also need to confess that we tend to live 'harder' than folks in other professions, which makes access to preventative care, mental health care and substance abuse treatment all that much more important."

John P. Strohm, a lawyer and musician who collaborated with Glackin, agrees. "I'm no authority, but I get the sense that providers consider musicians high risk because of their lifestyle. Whenever I tried to get individual insurance and went through the battery of tests and paperwork, the premiums providers quoted were always prohibitively high," says Strohm. "The unions and performing rights organizations really didn't offer any useful help either. I now know there are creative ways for musicians to get insurance, but it's up to organizations such as HINT to get the word out."

HINT spun out of the Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit that, as its mission statement explains, "identifies, examines, interprets and translates the challenging issues at the intersection of music, law, technology and policy." Maiolo and Stevenson are HINT's two-man volunteer team, charged with covering the entire nation. Their goal is to inform and guide musicians, offering a telephone hotline through which musicians can ask questions about insurance options.

Maiolo has helped some realize they can obtain health insurance simply by taking on three more hours of work per week at a nonmusic job. With others, he's discussed the benefits of a band considering incorporating. The toughest situations, he says, involve someone trying to make a living as a full-time musician. The profits from the road and the costs of insurance often don't meet. "If you're living on 15 or 20 thousand dollars a year, then health insurance actually does become a luxury," offers Maiolo. "And it's hardly a luxury. It's something people need."

click to enlarge Drew Glackin, playing with the Silos at Austin's Hole in the Wall in 2007. - PHOTO BY LINUS GELBER

Maiolo's agency in Carrboro focuses on property and casualty insurance, but his health insurance license has earned him the reputation as the go-to guy for music panels and conferences across the country. While Maiolo and Stevenson speak the language of health insurance—copays and community rating and different strokes for different states—they also understand their fellow musicians. "When someone says, 'I spend a lot of time out of state,' I instantly know what they're talking about," Maiolo says.

But Maiolo never routes musicians to his agency, and he refuses to sell health insurance to HINT users who request it from him.

"I don't ever want there to be the perception of a conflict of interest," he explains, "because I'd give up this entire industry tomorrow if I were made god of health insurance policy."

Maiolo would love that appointment, in fact. Given the reins, he would "shit-can the whole system and get national healthcare." Working within a horribly flawed framework is the best that can be done at the moment, he says, but he hopes it's only a short-term solution.

"While he firmly believes that the entire system must be overhauled, he's able to look reality in the face in a way that few of us artsy types seem capable of," Cary says of Maiolo. "He knows we have to work within the system that exists, he knows we can't be uninsured, and he also knows that many of us are actually more scared of the bureaucracy than of the bills."

Cary hopes HINT can help enough musicians obtain health insurance so that, one day, musicians can stop having benefits to pay one another's medical bills in full: "[When] we form communities of insured musicians, all of a sudden we truly can help take care of each other. A benefit to raise $10,000 to cover someone's deductible and a month's worth of daycare for their kid is realistic," she says. "And realistic philanthropy is the best."

Get the HINT: Future of Music Coalition Benefit Concerts in Memory of Drew Glackin take place Saturday, May 3, at The Pour House and Sunday, May 4, at Sadlack's. Saturday's lineup includes Tres Chicas (and a mini-Hazeldine reunion with Shawn Barton), The Silos, Chip Robinson with Heavy Beat Outfit, Patty Hurst Shifter, B.J. Barham, Quarry Hill, Chris Mills, Tandy and Glory Fountain. The 3:30 p.m. show costs $8-$10. Sunday's line-up includes Chip Robinson with Heavy Beat Outfit, Kenny Roby, Lou Ford, Joe Swank & the Zen Pirates and The Cartridge Family. The show starts at 3 p.m. See www.myspace.com/the_hint for complete details. For information on HINT and to watch a video on the program, visit www.futureofmusic.org.


What do the candidates for N.C. Commissioner of Insurance have to say?

click to enlarge Candidates Smith (left) and Goodwin
  • Candidates Smith (left) and Goodwin

Whoever wins the race for insurance commissioner will face an enduring and worsening health crisis in North Carolina. More than 17 percent of the state's residents under age 65 didn't have insurance in 2005, the latest figures cited in a UNC-Chapel Hill study. That figure is up from 15 percent in 2000. Democratic candidates Wayne Goodwin and David C. Smith are competing for their party's nomination, since Burlington Democrat Jim Long announced he would not seek a seventh term. Republican John Odom is uncontested in his party's primary. The stakes are high. According to the UNC study, the uninsured are 25 percent more likely to die a premature death than those with insurance.

Goodwin—a former two-term state legislator, attorney and Long's assistant commissioner since 2005—says he hopes to increase the role of the commissioner so as to better "prevent folks from falling in the cracks." To this end, Goodwin hopes to expand the income range of people eligible for Medicaid. Under Long's leadership, he says, the state has gradually attacked the health insurance issue by expanding coverage to children and seniors. This process can continue, he says, by forming a blue-ribbon study committee to make recommendations to the legislature on how to provide groups like North Carolina musicians and actors health insurance. Goodwin says he would work for the legislature to consider these recommendations on "what is needed to insure coverage for these and similar groups" by Dec. 31, 2009.

Smith—an attorney and the president-elect of the N.C. Association of Health Underwriters—describes the state's rising health insurance costs as "a real crisis" and predicts that, if quick action is not taken, between one-quarter and one-third of North Carolina citizens will be without health insurance in five years. The rising cost of coverage, Smith says, will prompt small businesses to drop employees from health insurance plans.

Smith proposes health-care reform by focusing on recently passed state legislation that allows for high-risk pools, which can decrease insurance rates for small- to medium-sized businesses by sharing risks and losses across a wider market segment. Both Goodwin and Smith say they were important to such legislation being written and passed. Smith also proposes to simplify the state's Medicaid application process and, like Goodwin, to expand the income range of those eligible for Medicaid.

"Everyone in the system understands that there is a crisis going on with health insurance costs," says Smith. "We have to address them, or where will we be with health insurance in five years?" —Grayson Currin

  • With the percentage of uninsured musicians tripling the national average, a local organization takes the HINT

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