Number 182 / June 2001:
On March 23, Chuck Billy, lead singer of the metal band Thrasher, announced that he had germ cell seminoma, a form of testicular cancer. Two months later, Billy agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from the Thrash of the Titans benefit, which is supposed to pay _his_ hospital bills, to death metal pioneer Chuck Schuldiner, who has an untreatable brain tumor. Such solidarity is beautiful, but the fact that it's necessary is what's wrong with health care in America. For musicians and for us all.
Singers are eligible for union health insurance through AFTRA, if they make records or do radio and TV broadcasts. There is a required minimum earnings from music of $7500. Of course, often record companies don't properly report earnings (which include advances charged against royalties, not just net royalties). When the friends of Victoria Williams put together Sweet Relief to help her out, she actually should have been covered by the AFTRA plan.
When Jackie Wilson collapsed onstage in New Jersey in 1975, he had to be hospitalized. Jackie _could_ have been rehabilitated, but the workmen's compensation insurance company decided it was more profitable to deny him treatment. Wilson lived miserably for nine years until he died.
Curtis Mayfield suffered a spinal cord injury at a 1990 show. Left quadriplegic, his family was nearly bankrupted, despite a degree of wealth, by the 24-hour nursing care he required for the rest of his life, which ended a year ago. In contrast, Gloria Estefan, who had a similar injury after her bus crashed, was covered, got topflight treatment from Day One and has completely recovered.
Soul singer Barbara Acklin ("Love Makes a Woman") died of pneumonia at age 54. She had been suffering from "a bad cold" for several weeks prior to her death, but had not sought treatment. She had no insurance.
Friends have been passing the hat on the Internet for donations to pay for medical expenses for Iron Butterfly's Lee Dorman, who has heart disease. Dorman was eventually able to qualify for a heart transplant because he was eligible for California's state Medi-Cal. But would his condition have been so serious if he'd had coverage to allow earlier diagnosis and treatment?
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lavern Baker was covered by AFTRA at the time of her stroke, but the insurers terminated her coverage. She was reinstated and dropped twice more before she died--each time, after she was hospitalized and the insurance company had to start paying claims.
Bluesman Bobby Rush and his band were in a bus accident in early 2001. One of the stage dancers was killed and everyone else was hurt pretty badly. Some are still hospitalized. None of them were covered by insurance. Of course there are benefits planned to defray the bills. But these musicians need help _now_. Without it, every step of their treatment is compromised.
In contrast, billionaire music entrepreneur David Geffen was treated for three years at Cedars Sinai, the swankiest hospital in Los Angeles, for bladder cancer that, it was eventually determined, he didn't actually have. Geffen's insurance covered it all.
Like most of us, musicians, even famous ones, can't afford huge premiums. Even if they do find care through AFTRA, once they're sick, they frequently lack the expertise or simply the energy to fight the stubborn health "care" bureaucracy that uses every trick to avoid having to pay out money. The tune these companies whistle goes something like this: "Hope you die before we have to pay out."
The solution to this insanity is to give everyone full medical coverage as a simple fact of life. If you think that's a crazy, unworkable idea, read the Labor Party's briefing paper on Just Health Care and exactly how it can be paid for (www.justhealthcare.org). Then you'll sing a different tune.
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