Health Crisis Demands National Fix

Volume CVI, No. 6June, 2006

Bill Dennison

Below is the testimony that I presented at a congressional hearing on the health care needs of those who work in the arts and entertainment industries held at Borough Hall in Brooklyn on March 6. It was sponsored by a number of arts organizations, including Local 802. Health care is one of the most important issues facing Local 802 members and cries out for a national solution. Fortunately there are some members of Congress, like John Conyers (D-MI), who continue to press this issue.

In addition to presenting testimony, I served on a panel that heard directly from those who work in our industry. The young widow of a dancer made one of the most dramatic presentations. She described their life working for a number of small ballet companies and surviving without health insurance. Her husband began to have hip pains, but with little money and no medical insurance he worked through the pain for over a year. Finally, after landing a job with a major ballet company he was able to get on a health insurance plan. Still bothered by the pain he began seeing a doctor. By that time, however, it was too late. Cancer in his hip had metastasized and could not be effectively treated. He died last year. It’s a tragic but all too familiar story.

First of all, on behalf of the more than 9,000 members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, I want to thank Congressman John Conyers, councilmember Charles Barron, and the organizations and individuals who are responsible for organizing this hearing on health care for artists.

Local 802 represents the professional musicians who live and work in New York. As such we are intimately familiar with the health care crisis that our members and their families have to cope with on a daily basis.

Our New York local and our sister local in Los Angeles are the largest AFM locals in the country and the only two that have health benefits funds. In that sense we are the lucky ones. Members of other locals are forced to seek health care in the open market at costs that make insurance prohibitive for many.

The Local 802 Health Benefit Fund receives contributions made by employers under the collective bargaining agreements we negotiate. Coverage comes after certain levels of contributions are received for each member. Of our nearly 9,000 members, fewer than 3,000 are covered by our health insurance fund or by the few other employer-sponsored health insurance plans through their work under collective bargaining agreements — like the New York Philharmonic.

Many of the remaining 6,000 either have no insurance, pay exorbitant monthly premiums to maintain some level of coverage, or depend upon coverage through a spouse.

It is quite clear that the percentage of musicians and other artists who are without medical insurance far exceeds these rates for the population in general. Barely a week goes by that we aren’t made aware of musicians who need health care but have no insurance or who had emergency care provided but have no insurance to pay the bill. And even for the lucky ones who have insurance, the caps on the coverage we are able to provide can leave gaps in their insurance needs. The organization of “benefit performances” or “benefit recordings” to raise money for musicians’ health care needs are a far too common occurrence.

For musicians, the U.S. health care system simply doesn’t work. I repeat: it does not work! There are several reasons, some unique to us, but most are common to nearly everyone.

Musicians, like many who work in the arts and entertainment business, find themselves working for dozens or even hundreds of difference employers over the course of a year. The employer-based health insurance model that most workers in our nation have relied on over the past 60 years simply doesn’t fit the way in which we make our livings. Most of us do not have a single or even two or three employers over the course of a year. And this problem is becoming more common for more and more segments of the U.S. workforce.

Because many of us have no insurance, primary and preventive care is less and less likely. Illnesses that could have been prevented or detected early and resolved, go undiagnosed and untreated, leading to unnecessary suffering and unnecessary costs.

The paperwork and bureaucracy associated with the health insurance industry, with hospitals, labs and other providers, is simply insane. It is estimated that 20 percent of every health care dollar is spent on this paperwork and not on actual health care services.

Like every other health benefit fund, the Local 802 plan is facing double-digit increases each year. We have been forced to cut benefits and we are forced to continue to bargain increases in employer health benefit contributions, which means less money is available for wage improvements. We are forced to get more money from the employers we have under contract, while those not under agreement pay nothing. Employers who are doing the right thing are punished while those who are escaping their responsibility are rewarded. The Wal-Mart phenomenon is spreading to every industry including ours.


Musicians need what everyone else needs: health care that is affordable, accessible, not tied to a particular job or employer, and includes physical and mental health with a focus on preventive care.

I believe the single payer National Heath Insurance Act introduced by Rep. Conyers offers that solution. The fact is, a single payer plan works and the evidence is the national Medicare plan. Every employer and employee pays into Medicare. This inclusive financial base means that every employee and employer pays their fair share.

Medicare spends barely 2 percent on administrative costs — that means billions of additional dollars could be spent on health care, not on paperwork.

Because of its size, Medicare is able to negotiate reasonable charges, fees and costs of medication. It is able to at least moderate the rising costs of health care.

For all of these reasons the single payer National Health Insurance Act is the only solution to the health care crisis facing our members, musicians throughout the nation and artists generally. We thank Rep. Conyers for drawing attention to this growing tragedy and to the solution. More of our political leaders need a similar level of wisdom and courage.