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Laurie Niles

August 27, 2004 at 6:48 AM

One of the big difficulties facing professional musicians in the United States is the expense of buying health insurance.

In the United States, citizens are required to find their own way to get health care. For many, people with "good jobs," health insurance is subsidized by their employer. Some provide a solid plan that covers most of an employee's basic health needs while requiring a modest monthly payment from the employee. Other employers provide more expensive plans, with high monthly rates and high prices for prescriptions. Many people, though, receive no coverage from their employers. These include people with low-paying jobs, part-time jobs, an income that is divided between several different jobs...for example, a musician who teaches and plays!

One reason that people work hard, study long hours and go to college is so that, upon graduating, they will be able to get one of those “good jobs” that provide health care benefits. Reality introduces itself in a nasty manner when a musician graduates from a top school (or any school, for that matter) with a graduate degree and, say, $45,000 in student loans, only to find that “good jobs” simply do not exist for any but a tiny number of performing musicians.

I'm happy to say that Southern California is one of the few places in the United States that provides a bit of a safety net for such a musician, though you still must work many hours and for the right employers to qualify.

I'm learning more about heath insurance as I'm serving on a negotiations committee for the Redlands Symphony, one of the orchestras where I play in Southern California. In negotiations, musicians and the union that represents us (American Federation of Musicians, Local 47) sit down with the management of an orchestra and talk about how much money we want for playing, how much money they can afford, what benefits we request and what benefits they can afford. After much back and forth, we all pound out a deal, ideally one that is amenable to both parties.

Of course, I'm not going to tell you any of the specifics of our negotiation -- that would be a major breach. I'm just going to tell you about the local union's health insurance program, because after living in many cities that do not have anything like it, I find the option fascinating. So I spoke to Doug Caine, who is Special Assistant to the President of Local 47, the musicians' union in LA.

He told me that the only cities where the AFM has such programs are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Nashville.

“It's very difficult to fund a plan like this unless you have a lot of participation,” Caine said. “Because we have so many members in Local 47, we have some bargaining power.” Local 47 has almost 10,000 members, he said. These are musicians of all kinds (violinists, vocalists, electronic instrument players, etc.) who play in several genres (classical, jazz, popular music, folk, etc.)

Here is how the union's health plan works: In order to qualify for AFM health benefits, a musician must have at least $600 in employer contributions paid on their behalf each year to the plan. The good news is that those contributions do not need to come all from one employer. For example, a violinist who played in several different orchestras, did some single engagements and worked some shows can piece together enough contributions from all those sources to get in on this plan. The trick is, some orchestras pay into the plan and some do not. So you need to be playing for those orchestras which make contributions to the union's “Health and Welfare” plan to get coverage. Those jobs get pretty competitive around here.

“There are players that won't play unless they get Health and Welfare,” Caine said. “Given that, most employers will grumble but ultimately be happy that the musicians they are attracting are the best musicians.”

Because of this health plan, many of the finest musicians in the area would take a job that pays the Health and Welfare benefit over one that pays more money.

Not every eligible musician participates in the plan. For example, I was eligible for several years but didn't purchase the insurance because my husband's health plan covers me. But a number of my friends use the plan for their entire families.

In fact, for some of my free-lance friends, this plan has allowed them to have families. That may sound over-the-top, but it's pretty hard to afford a pregnancy and heath care for a family without insurance. Many musicians in other states face that difficult situation.

For the AFM musicians in Los Angeles, this plan means that you don't have to get into the LA Philharmonic in order to be cared for. If you are are a hard-working musician who can hustle up enough jobs that make contributions into the plan, you can have health care benefits. That still leaves a large number of people who can't get the $600 in contributions each year and can't qualify. But the AFM's plan provides a start, and it'd be nice to see it happen in other cities as well.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 9, 2006 at 6:55 AM
Lack of health insurance is a major reason many things aren't done, in peoples' personal lives and in the business world, including creative things in the technical realm; things which would leverage geometrically. People might think of it as expensive or inconvenient, but perhaps don't really recognize it as the coercive thing it is.

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