Texas musicians consider their health care options

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — No one has ever written a song about premiums or deductibles.

And it’s not likely that anyone will begin composing upbeat lyrics about health insurance anytime soon. But some members of the music community here in Austin, a town that defines itself by its vibrant scene, are excited about the federal Affordable Care Act and the potentially positive effects it could have on them.

The Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/16qXnhe ) reports Jo Rae Di Menno, a music publicist working in Texas since the early 1980s, is optimistic that the Affordable Care Act could go a long way in keeping an often hard-living community in Austin healthy.

“It’s going to be a relief, particularly if you have pre-existing conditions,” she said.

Beginning Oct. 1, uninsured musicians in Central Texas — and uninsured Americans everywhere — will have the opportunity to compare and buy health insurance plans through a federally run marketplace, and many of them will qualify for subsidies to help them afford coverage that was previously out of reach.

There’s a lot still unknown about the federal health insurance overhaul known commonly as “Obamacare,” such as plan specifics and costs. The uncertainly has made some people connected to Austin’s music industry skeptical about the promise of affordable health care for musicians, leaving firmly in place the celebrated culture of benefit concerts in which musicians rally together to raise money for their ill or injured friends.

Alejandro Escovedo, one of Austin’s most well-known rock-‘n’-rollers, said he probably will comply with the act and buy a health insurance policy, but he’s reserving judgment on the new federal law.

“Rock and roll and the government never have gotten along that well, you know?” Escovedo said. “I’m dubious, but let’s see what happens.”

Escovedo is emblematic of much of Austin’s long-time rockers who have lived for years without insurance. They have stayed away from doctors whenever possible and have depended on the goodwill of the community when their situations became dire.

“The last time I had insurance, I was under my parents’ care,” Escovedo, 62, said recently in a telephone interview from Nashville, Tenn. “I’m a musician, and I don’t have enough money to afford insurance for my family.”

But even if he had the bankroll to pay for insurance for himself, Escovedo said he wouldn’t be able to buy a reasonable policy because of a health condition that has plagued him since the 1990s: hepatitis C. For him, the Affordable Care Act — and its mandate to not lock out people with pre-existing conditions — comes with the hope that he can someday be cured of his disease.

But the law also could deliver something more important to Escovedo.

“There’s relief in that I know my kids — my younger kids that are still with me — can get some help,” said Escovedo, who added that he supports universal health care. “It’ll be a great relief to a lot of people if they are able to get the treatment everyone else gets.”

Another longtime Austin musician was more hopeful.

Uninsured for practically all of his adult life, Danny Phillips, a 55-year-old guitarist and vocalist, said before a rehearsal in South Austin that he is looking forward to buying insurance for himself and his 25-year-old son, Dion.

Phillips said he has always wanted insurance but couldn’t afford it. So he just tried to stay healthy, and paid out of pocket on the rare occasion that he went to a doctor’s office. He cringed when he remembered a period several years ago when he passed kidney stones. He has since paid off the bills associated with that miserable episode, he said.

“As long as I can get insurance for a couple hundred bucks, I can do that,” said Phillips, whose blue eyes matched the pearl-snapped denim shirt and jeans he wore to rehearsal last week.

Even though details of health plans have not been released to the public in Texas, a recent national study by Avalere Health found that the cost of a midrange policy would be about $270 a month for a 21-year-old; $330 a month for a 40-year-old; and $615 a month for a 60-year-old. Those figures are rough estimates and can vary from one person, and one state, to the next. They also don’t take into account the federal subsidies, based on a person’s income, that will bring down the cost of the insurance.

Many Austin musicians — especially younger ones — make less money and are more inclined to walk around with the sense of indestructibility that often thrives in people in their 20s.

Those people, Phillips said, likely will not buy insurance.

Even Phillips’ friend and band mate Phillip McCarthy, 59, said he isn’t sure what he’ll do.

McCarthy wants to wait and see what the plans look like, he said as he prepared to practice for a benefit to help the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, a group that provides access to affordable health care for Austin’s working musicians.

“It’s very hard to make a decision when you don’t have all the information,” he said.

It might make more economic sense simply to try to stay healthy, said McCarthy, who can make music with his 50-year-old Fender Stratocaster that sounds simultaneously unworldly and reminiscent of a theme from an old Western movie.

McCarthy is thinking about paying a small federal penalty for not getting insurance. It likely still would be cheaper than a year’s worth of premiums. At least for the first year, anyone who declines coverage and earns above the federal poverty line, or $11,490 a year for a single adult, will have to pay either $95 per person or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is higher.

As HAAM’s executive director Carolyn Schwarz points out, it doesn’t matter what the basics of Obamacare look like because many Austin musicians will fall into the gap where they make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to be eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance on the federally run marketplace. The majority of the musicians that HAAM helps live below 100 percent of the federal poverty line. Other states expanded their Medicaid programs to serve a greater number of poor people, but leaders in Texas declined to extend the program.

It’s those very poor musicians in Texas — along with anyone else who doesn’t buy insurance — who will keep HAAM relevant.

The musicians who live above the poverty line also will rely on HAAM to be a resource for dental, hearing, vision and nutrition services, she added.

“HAAM is here to stay,” Schwarz said. “We are going to evolve as we watch and analyze what happens with our client load and our resources.”

Escovedo, who has been the beneficiary of benefit shows in the past, said the Austin music community will never turn its backs on an ailing member of their community.

“The benefits are always going to be there because it gives a sense of support and family — kind of familial/communal thing — that’s important for us to have,” he said. “I hope that’s never gone in Austin.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Austin American-Statesman

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