Obamacare Is in Danger Again and Indie Musicians Are On Edge

Kelley Deal
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Kelley Deal of The Breeders performs in concert during the second weekend of ACL Music Festival at Zilker Park on Oct. 13, 2018 in Austin, Texas.

Breeders guitarist Kelley Deal, a longtime Affordable Care Act customer, says she’ll seek care even if she loses her insurance. “Who is going to pay for that if I have hundreds of thousands of medical bills? I rent so you can't take my house.”

Two years ago, singer-songwriter Will Hutchinson survived a massive heart attack. He has a congenital heart defect and after attempting to run a quarter-mile around an elementary school near his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, he collapsed, then woke up a week later in the hospital. The ambulances, doctors, hospitals and drugs cost $188,000, but because Hutchinson, 33, had health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, he wound up paying roughly $2,000.

"So, yeah, I'm terrified about the Supreme Court nominee," says Hutchinson, who earned minimum wage as a corporate bank teller for years before the ACA, rehearsing and performing weeknights and weekends. "It's not an option to not have insurance. I can't take a risk of getting another $188,000 bill -- that would potentially not only leave me in a casket, but leave my wife and children without a home. Not to mention not even being able to pay for the casket."

If President Donald Trump and many congressional Republicans get their way in the U.S. Supreme Court, thousands of independent musicians and freelance and self-employed music workers are among the 20 million Americans who could lose their health insurance. Trump’s administration supports a pending lawsuit to overturn the ACA and the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, has criticized the law over the years. The Supreme Court will hear the case the week of Nov. 10 and announce its ruling in June. (Repeal isn’t a sure thing: If Democrats take over the Senate and the presidency in next month’s election, they could pass legislation to preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions, rendering any court decision moot.)

If these healthcare changes come to pass, especially now that the pandemic has shut down touring as a crucial revenue source, the indie-music community is especially vulnerable to economic catastrophe. Superstars can generally afford to buy their own insurance, or even set up companies to provide for their crew and other employees. Major record labels are members of Hollywood union SAG-AFTRA, and they pay into a fund to provide insurance to their signed musicians with annual earnings of $17,000 or higher. The American Federation of Musicians provides health benefits for its 80,000 members, but those musicians have to work at studios, theatres or clubs that contribute to the union’s fund. And -- often as a last resort -- MusiCares uses charitable donations to help some musicians pay for major medical expenses.

“For musicians who aren’t employed with big companies who offer health plans, [the ACA] is the only way to be able to afford it -- unless someone’s independently wealthy,” says Justin Osborne, the Charleston, South Carolina, singer-songwriter behind the band Susto. “It makes your access to healthcare really unattainable because the premiums are so sky high.”

When the ACA became law in early 2010, musicians were among the many gig workers who suddenly no longer had to worry about insurance companies jacking up their healthcare rates due to preexisting conditions. Kelley Deal, the Breeders guitarist who was set to perform with Protomartyr earlier this year until the pandemic canceled the tour, has hypothyroidism -- an underactive thyroid-- and purchased an Obamacare plan early on; today she pays about $300 a month.

But like many musicians, as well as indie managers, agents, label execs and others who aren't part of companies that pay for employees' healthcare, Deal is feeling the Obamacare anxiety. If the ACA disappears, she says, she'd have to fall back on a shaky contingency plan. "I live steps from a hospital. If something happens to me, I'm going to crawl over there, and they have to see me -- and who is going to pay for that if I have hundreds of thousands of medical bills for whatever reason? I rent so you can't take my house," she says. "Taxpayers will pay for that."

Dan Binaei, 45-year-old guitarist for Chicago hardcore band Racetraitor, has Crohn's disease and is able to work as a self-employed musician and psychotherapist largely due to the ACA. His flexible day-job hours allow him to concentrate on the band, which recently reunited for tours. "If it wasn't for the Affordable Care Act, I couldn't work independently, and that would limit what I'm able to do with music," says Binaei, who pays $425 a month for his plan. "The irony of my disease is it’s related to anxiety. Every time I hear something on the news about the possibility of the ACA being undone, or preexisting conditions not being covered, I get a shot through my body -- it's like a shot of adrenaline."

MC Bravado, a Baltimore rapper, was able to quit his job as a full time teacher to go into music -- and now pays a reasonable amount on healthcare for physicals and a couple minor medications. "If I didn't know I had that going, I couldn't tell you what I would do. It could make a tough situation way more difficult," he says. "I'm doing what I want to do with my life." 

Obamacare has been under threat numerous times during the Trump Administration, although the late Sen. John McCain's memorable "thumbs-down" vote on a 2017 Republican repeal bill spared it at the last minute. President Trump has pledged to replace the ACA with a "much less expensive and much better" plan, but neither he nor congressional Republicans have offered anything concrete. Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, acknowledges a Supreme Court ruling against the ACA would disproportionately hurt independent musicians -- but if that happens, the U.S. has larger problems. "If indeed the ACA is overturned, it's going to throw the entire healthcare system into such a crisis that I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen," he says.

But musicians are prepared to deal with the loss the way they always do -- by being creative and resourceful. "Musicians are already used to being treated this way by society," says Kat Edmonson, a New York recording artist who, as a part-time actress, was on a SAG/AFTRA healthcare plan until recently. "They're just going to find a way to get another gig, or find a way to pay for it." 

Adds John Cooper, the Lone Chimney, Oklahoma, singer and guitarist for Red Dirt Rangers who pays no premiums for his Blue Cross Blue Shield plan through the ACA: "We'd fall back on what we always do as musicians: When we get hurt, our friends throw benefits for us. That's the insurance policy in the music world."

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