Local 802 Speaks Out for Universal Health Care

Volume CVII, No. 6June, 2007

Local 802 has officially joined the chorus of diverse voices calling for universal health care. On March 9th, President Mary Landolfi testified to the NY State Assembly Committees on Health, Labor and Insurance about the effects of the health care crisis on Local 802 and musicians more generally. She spoke of the particular challenge musicians face trying to secure health insurance, the difficulties the Local 802 health plan has experienced and how that has affected 802 members, and the urgent need for universal single payer health insurance. If you’re interested in reading President Landolfi’s complete testimony, it is posted below.

In addition to our efforts to advocate for health care reform at the state level, we are participating in a national campaign to make universal health care a priority for our Democratically controlled Congress. On February 27th, the Executive Board voted to introduce a resolution at the AFM national convention on June 18-20, calling on the AFM to endorse the United States National Health Insurance Act, HR 676. Local 802 will continue to advocate for universal health care at the state and federal level.

President Landolfi’s Testimony to the NY State Assembly Committees on Health, Insurance and Labor:

Hello, my name is Mary Landolfi. I’m the president of Local 802, of the American Federation of Musicians, the largest musicians union in the United States.

First, I’d like to thank Assembly Members Gottfried, Grannis and John for hosting this hearing today and for giving New Yorkers the opportunity to speak to the Assembly Committees on Health, Insurance and Labor on this critical issue.

Let me introduce you to our union. Local 802 is New York’s musician’s union. We represent nearly 10,000 professional musicians working throughout the five boroughs of New York City and Long Island. Our members include orchestral musicians who perform at Lincoln Center, Broadway pit musicians, teaching artists and the freelance musicians who perform and record in many other musical venues in and around New York.

New York’s musical offerings are critical to our city’s status as one of the major arts capitals of the world. New York’s cultural workers, including its musicians, are the engines of our economy’s vital cultural sector. The challenge of securing health insurance faces all of New York’s cultural workers and threatens to push artists out of the cultural workforce, or out of New York, to the detriment of our economy and our quality of life.

Many New Yorkers struggle with health insurance. For our cultural workers, securing health coverage is particularly difficult. In our society, health insurance is tied to a traditional model of extended full time employment with a single employer, but the work of artists doesn’t fit the traditional model of employment. It is project-oriented; artists might have several employers one week and then none three weeks later. And yet they still need affordable health insurance – in those three overbooked weeks and the empty week that follows.

Let me tell you a little bit about the specific challenge musicians face trying to secure health insurance:

Most of New York’s professional musicians are members of Local 802, through union employment they have the possibility of access to our health plan. The Local 802 Health Benefit Fund receives contributions from employers under collective bargaining agreements we negotiate. Coverage for each member comes by attaining certain levels of contributions. Of our nearly 10,000 members, fewer than 3,000 are covered by our health benefit fund. Some others (the NY Philharmonic for example) receive health coverage through other employer-sponsored health insurance plans. Many of the remaining 7000 members either pay exorbitant monthly premiums to maintain some level of coverage or depend upon coverage through a spouse. The remainder have no insurance at all.

It is important to understand, however, that the lucky 3,000 who get enough union work to qualify for the 802 health plan, aren’t that lucky. Because of the skyrocketing cost of health care, our plan had to undergo major changes recently – changes that make it significantly harder to qualify for the plan, and that lower the quality of the benefit available to those that do qualify.

The standard 802 benefit is totally inadequate on several counts. It does not include hospital coverage and, most glaringly, the plan has a cap of $50,000 a year per beneficiary. Once you have incurred $50,000 worth of medical expenses, you pay all the remaining costs of your treatment. A number of Local 802 members have maxed out their benefits in seeking treatment for cancer, for heart disease – even lyme disease.

Recently a married couple, both of whom qualify for the plan by playing in a Broadway show, maxed out coverage on the plan while seeking treatment for their daughter. They are grappling with the tremendous financial challenge of paying the difference between the $50,000 the plan will guarantee and the cost of their daughter’s treatment. Local 802 musicians have organized a collection on their behalf. Over the past few years, there have been several major collections like this for high profile cases of musicians maxed out on health benefits. It’s heartwarming when musicians pull together thousands of dollars to support their colleagues, but passing the hat is not a real health care solution for musicians, or for anyone else.

Even worse is the fact that the majority of 802 members can’t even get enough union work to qualify for this inadequate benefit. They get a show on Broadway or a string of wedding jobs and they qualify for the plan. The next year the show goes under or the jobs dry up and they fall off the plan. Taking time off work to care for a sick parent or to have a child causes the loss of health insurance and the risk of financial ruin. Without access to the 802 health insurance plan, these musicians are out of luck. Their income, though modest, is too high to qualify for publicly funded health insurance programs. .The cost of purchasing an individual plan on the market is prohibitive. So they go without insurance.

When musicians have no health insurance, they do the same things all uninsured people do. Seeking medical care becomes a last resort, something musicians turn to in only the most dire of circumstances – this means emergency room visits and deferred and inadequate treatment. That is detrimental to the physical health of uninsured musicians, and to the financial health of both the musicians and the medical system at large.

So what needs to be done? Musicians need what everyone else needs; health care that is affordable, and that is accessible. As cultural workers, and members of a growing population of workers whose employment doesn’t fit the traditional model, musicians need health insurance that is not tied to a single employer. We applaud Governor Spitzer’s proposal to insure all of New York’s children. We urge the state to build on this proposal, and enact the reforms necessary to ensure that all New Yorkers have affordable health insurance coverage.