Music Health Alliance Puts Bandage on Industry Wallets in Nashville: 'What We Do Is Not Sexy, But It's So Needed'

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 Justin Timberlake performs onstage with Chris Stapleton at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  

When Chris Stapleton won three Country Music Association Awards and got tongues wagging about his electrifying performance with Justin Timberlake, much of Nashville's music industry was excited -- a talented guy was getting his due, and it might reconnect mainstream country with the genre's roots.

Music Health Alliance (MHA) executive director Tatum Hauck Allsep and director of operations Shelia Shipley Biddy had more practical reasons for optimism. The attention on Stapleton practically guaranteed their March 1, 2016 benefit would sell out. The event, announced Nov. 16, will fund roughly a quarter of the agency's annual budget, and in turn potentially keep scores of musicians and music-industry professionals from going broke.

According to MHA, seventy-six percent of workers in Nashville's music industry -- including 80 percent of musicians -- operate without health insurance. A large majority of those uninsured are independent contractors with unpredictable revenue streams, and they have never figured out how they can afford difficult premiums. But when a health emergency arises, they really can't afford the astronomical medical bills. That includes the musician whose heart attack racked up $68,000 in debt for a three-day hospital stay. Or the player whose daughter developed cervical cancer and needs $20,000 up front just to start six weeks of treatment. Or the former label exec whose bouts with cancer left her unable to afford a new mattress when her previous one went to pot.

That's where MHA steps in. Both Hauck Allsep and Shipley Biddy have survived medical horror stories and have a passion for aiding the creative class in working through the maze of bureaucracy in the health care industry. Shipley Biddy has one particular client whose finances were destroyed by a bout with esophageal cancer. No one else had been able to help, and his family was skeptical that MHA would assist. But the agency found ways to have $100,000 of expenses written down.

"His wife said we gave hope back to his children, because they'd come to believe nobody was coming," Shipley Biddy says. 

By mid-December, MHA will have helped some 2,200 music-industry professionals save more than $10 million in health costs and insurance premiums during the past three years, an impressive achievement for a staff of two full-time employees and one part-timer. 

The agency owes its existence to Vanderbilt Medical Center. Hauck Allsep, a former artist manager, was working for the hospital as a liaison to the music industry in 2006. The facility is located just three blocks from Music Row, and administrators wanted to attract more business from Nashville's music community. But Kix Brooks told her their efforts weren't realistic.

"Nobody's going to come here," he said, "unless you can figure out a way to get health insurance to the music industry."

So Hauck Allsep met with 17 different insurance companies -- "I felt like I needed a shower after every one," she quips -- but she was impressed with independent insurance agent RJ Stillwell. They founded Sound Healthcare specifically for the music industry, and for a time, the company provided a group policy for the Country Music Association. 

When the Affordable Care Act went into law, it opened up numerous programs that would help music professionals, and Hauck Allsep decided to form a nonprofit to help the music community become aware of them and navigate the red tape. Even before the agency officially launched, then-ailing "Cowboy" Jack Clement planned a live celebration with such artists as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Kris Kristofferson in January 2013. The event raised $16,000, which became seed money for MHA. In turn, any commissions that MHA receives from securing insurance policies go into the agency's Jack Pot -- named after Clement -- providing a pool to assist clients with expenses under $500, such as doctor visits or equipment that's uncovered by a policy.

Despite a load of politically charged media, the ACA has had positive results for scads of musicians and executives who were previously unable to secure coverage.

"It created access where there was none," says Hauck Allsep. "The law itself has a lot of garbage in it, but before the Affordable Care Act, if you had taken more than two anti-depressants, which is most of the music industry, it would make you uninsurable. Or if you'd had cancer five years ago, that made you uninsurable, and that puts your whole estate at risk."

While MHA has made an obvious difference, the work keeps piling up. Recent premium hikes have created panic for a lot of rank-and-file music workers, and MHA added 300 new clients in a 10-day period this month. Many can be helped with a phone call or a short meeting. And plenty of others can benefit from MHA's Get Covered 101 seminars, a 90-minute crash course on health insurance. (The next one takes place at 2 p.m. on Nov. 17 at ASCAP.)

MHA is actively seeking an artist to serve as a spokesperson for the cause. Meanwhile, Stapleton's win helps with those ticket sales for the First and the Worst, the March 1 benefit at Nashville's City Winery in which songwriters play the first and the worst songs they have written. The lineup for the second annual event also features Lee Brice and writers Jessi Alexander ("I Drive Your Truck"), Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today") and Sandy Knox ("Does He Love You"). If it sells out, it ensures that MHA can keep slogging it out for the 80 percent of musicians who don't have insurance.

"What we do is sooo not sexy," says Hauck Allsep. "And we can't make it sexy. But it's so needed."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.