Artists take pains to get coverage

Independent artists in Minnesota have it better than most, but many still struggle to find healthcare to fit their budgets and lifestyle

Thomas Q. Johnson

Being an artist can be more complex than it seems.

At a median income of just more than $21,000 in Minnesota, full-time artists are six times more likely than people in other occupations to be self-employed at some point in their career. Without the option of purchasing a health insurance plan through an employer, many simply go uninsured.

“A lot of artists are ridiculously under-covered when it comes to insurance,” said Andy Sturdevant, artistic resources director at Springboard for the Arts. Springboard is an arts organization that connects local artists with insurance, among other services.

“It’s such a complicated topic, a lot of times you just end up ignoring it,” he said.

Sturdevant said he dropped coverage for a couple of years when he was younger because of cost, although many services — like those offered at Springboard — make it easier for artists to get coverage. But a 2007 survey by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts found that about 14 percent of Minnesota artists were uninsured, while about 7 percent of people were statewide.

“[Minnesota] may be better than Mississippi in health care, but that doesn’t mean a lot to the uninsured artist who breaks his arm today,” Sturdevant said.

Tom Lloyd is a 2009 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in theatre arts. Uninsured for more than a year, he works at the Bedlam Theater building sets and raising money. Lloyd, 27, was dropped from his family’s plan last year — 26 is the maximum age for dependent coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

For Lloyd, finding his own health insurance just isn’t important. It’s expensive and confusing, and he’s not ever sure he really needs it.

“I haven’t really looked into it, to be honest,” he said. “I feel like I don’t need it. I barely ever go to the doctor. If I’m sick, I take Extra Strength Tylenol.”

For independent artists who do seek coverage, it takes some effort to get it. Samantha Johns is a 2007 graduate of the University’s theatre arts program. Because of her careful planning, she’s never been uninsured.

“I was raised by stern parents who made me believe that this is a thing that you just need,” she said. “You take care of it.”

To help get insurance, Johns worked enough hours at Holiday Inn to qualify for its internal program and worked in theater on the side. When she left the hotel a couple of years ago, she budgeted enough for insurance, did some shopping and set herself up with an affordable plan.

She realizes it’s a choice not everyone is in a position to make.

“I have a lot of friends I know who are not insured,” she said. “It makes me nervous, but everyone has their own ways of working.”

Springboard offers a variety of resources for artists, from an artists’ health fair to an online how-to guide — anything they can do to crack what can look like an overwhelmingly complex system.

Since 2006, Springboard has sponsored a voucher program called Artists’ Access to Healthcare (AAH), which gives artists $40 credits to a network of clinics across the metro.

Nikki Hunt, program director for Springboard’s health program, said she hopes the MNsure health insurance marketplace will help remove barriers for artists. Individuals cannot be denied for pre-existing conditions, new subsidies are available and the online market adds a bit more Amazon-like transparency.

The goal, she said, is to help people help themselves, not subsist on Springboard assistance.

Jenni Bowring-McDonough,  MNsure media relations coordinator, said MNsure is doing all it can to get the word out to lower-income people, including artists.

“Minnesota has the lowest [premium] rates in the nation,” she said. “We think once people start looking on the marketplace, they’ll find it’s a lot easier than they think to get coverage.”

For some, being an artist means taking risks, like living a lifestyle that’s a bit less healthy than most. It’s something Lloyd has made peace with.

“It’s our profession to be … throwing ourselves on the edge more than other people are,” he said. “I feel, in a way, I trust in the universe to provide.”