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AHIRC’s Renata Marinaro Speaks To New York’s City Council

February 2, 2012 Comments off

Renata Marinaro

Renata Marinaro

On January 23, The Actors Fund‘s Renata Marinaro, Director of Health Services/Eastern Region for The Artists’ Health Insurance Resource Center (AHIRC), testified to the New York City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs on increasing health insurance access for artists in the city. The Committee is considering various ways to increase access to health care and insurance, including expanding bartering programs such as Artists Access and targeting information and resources at the creative community. Council members present included James Van Bramer and Dominic Recchia, who were joined by Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs Kate Levin. The Commissioner and the Chair of the Committee recognized The Actors Fund’s central role in educating artists on health care options and providing free care through the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic.

Renata’s testimony was so enlightening and included so many important points, we thought we’d make the transcript available to everyone:

My name is Renata Marinaro. I’m the Director of Health Services, Eastern Region, for The Actors Fund.

The Fund’s Hirschfeld Clinic offers free health care for the uninsured in performing arts and entertainment. Photo by Karissa Krenz.

THE ACTORS FUND is a national human services organization that helps all professionals in performing arts and entertainment. THE FUND IS A SAFETY NET, PROVIDING PROGRAMS AND SERVICES FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN NEED, CRISIS OR TRANSITION. Founded in 1882, The Fund serves those in film, theater, television, music, opera, and dance, and assists both performers and those behind the scenes with a broad spectrum of programs designed to address the needs of the community, including comprehensive social services, health services, supportive and affordable housing, employment and training services, and skilled nursing and assisted living care. The Fund also makes emergency grants for essential needs.

In 1998, The Actors Fund received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a resource center for uninsured people in the visual and performing arts.  This was in response to the high number of uninsured and underinsured artists — estimated in 2009 by Leveraging Investments in Creativity to be 36%, higher than the general population estimate of 25%. The Fund created an online state-by-state database, accessible for free at www.ahirc.org, that links to up-to-date information about getting and keeping health insurance and finding quality, affordable health care for those who cannot afford health insurance or do not have access to it because of a pre-existing condition.  The website received about 348,500 individual visits in 2011.

In addition, counselors at the resource center advise entertainment industry professionals in person and by phone regarding their options for getting health insurance. Clients are educated on a variety of options, including private insurance — unaffordable to most artists since premiums for basic HMOs currently range between $920 (the cheapest) to $2765 per month —  to association plans for the self-employed, like The Freelancers Union or TEIGIT, where the cost is still high but less than half of the private plans, to income-based government-subsidized programs, like Medicaid, Family Health Plus, and Healthy NY.

Hirschfeld Clinic

The waiting room at The Fund’s Hirschfeld Clinic in midtown Manhattan. Photo by Karissa Krenz.

We counsel over 3000 artists each year, many of whom cannot afford any of these options, and, among the performers, do not get enough union work to qualify for benefits with SAG, AFTRA, Equity or the Musician’s Union Local 802. While some will not need medical care during the year, others will be among those who avoid or delay needed care, or who get care and are charged exorbitant non-negotiated rates, then face medical bills of thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars that, despite the financial assistance we can offer, cause them to go into ruinous debt.

New York City is fortunate to have excellent community clinics such as the Ryan Centers and Callen-Lorde that charge on a sliding scale and are a medical home for many artists.  The Actors Fund operates the only full-time free clinic in the city, the Al Hirschfeld on 57th St and Tenth Avenue.  Last year the clinic saw almost 1400 uninsured patients for almost 3,000 visits.  In addition, the city’s Health and Hospital’s Corporation’s HHC Options program provides hospital care to the uninsured based on their income.  But these are not a substitute for health insurance.

Since The Actors Fund last testified in 2009 the health insurance landscape has changed, losing some features and gaining others. The arts service organization Fractured Atlas no longer offers health insurance. The Freelancers Union coverage has gotten more expensive with higher deductibles and co-pays, and Healthy NY, a program heavily utilized by our community, now offers only high-deductible plans, making it a less attractive option for many who need regular care. The ARRA subsidy allowed many of our clients to continue their coverage at affordable rates; however, it expired in 2011.  Fortunately, the New York State Entertainment Industry COBRA subsidy, which began in January 2005, has survived and continues to help industry professionals bridge periods of low employment.

These losses, however, have been compensated for by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It has brought welcome and necessary changes to the system: younger artists can now be insured under their parents’ coverage up to age 26, a benefit that has been heavily utilized. The NY Bridge Plan has been a lifeline to many formerly uninsured artists who, without it, would be forced to pay more than double the cost of the Bridge Plan premium for insurance that would not cover their pre-existing conditions for at least a year. And for the senior performers, the 50% discount on brand name drugs in the doughnut hole has made a big difference.

Dr. Jim Spears speaks with Sarah Ittner, a New York-based actor, at the Actors Fund's Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America.

And what is coming in 2014 will have an even greater impact on our community.  The ability to purchase a comprehensive health insurance plan that meets an individual’s or a family’s health care needs on a competitive Exchange, the system of subsidies to make it affordable to low and middle income people, and the mandate to purchase insurance has the potential of finally achieving our mission of EVERY ARTIST INSURED.

New York has more health insurance resources for performing artists than most other states, yet the number of uninsured in the performing arts remains high. Episodic work and low and/or infrequent pay make it difficult for performing artists to maintain health insurance and find affordable health care.  To repeat: the most positive change to the health care landscape for the entertainment and arts community has come from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many of whose provisions are directed at the individual and small group market, where the majority of artists find themselves.

The Actors Fund’s Artists Health Insurance Resource Center (AHIRC) has been connecting artists, craftspeople and entertainment industry workers around the country to health insurance and affordable health care since 1998. For more information, visit www.actorsfund.org or www.ahirc.org.

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Supporting The People Who Make Us Laugh

April 13, 2011 Comments off

American Comedy Fund LogoIn tandem with The Comedy Awards, which aired this weekend on MTV Networks, a consortium of organizations announced the launch of  The American Comedy Fund. To be administered by the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), this new financial resource will help The Actors Fund and the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) provide social services and financial assistance to comedians who qualify. The American Comedy Fund is the first-ever charitable fund dedicated exclusively to supporting the comedy community in times of need, crisis or transition, and will help The Actors Fund provide much-needed financial assistance, health services and other resources for comedians across the country — many of which have no union support.

To further illustrate the need for The American Comedy Fund, the leaders of the three organizations overseeing it, Lisa Paulsen of EIF, Ken Sherer of MPTA, and Joseph Benincasa of The Actors Fund, penned the following Op-Ed, which was published by The Comic’s Comic (and subsequently picked up by The Huffington Post).

“Knights of Comedy: An American Dream or Impossible Dream”

From Bob Hope in the sixties to Steve Byrne and Ryan Dalton performing comedy for American service members over the Christmas holiday in a tent at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, comedians have had a long history of donning Don Quixote’s “helmet of membrino” as their battle gear to perform on the front lines and entertain our troops abroad during wartime.

Comedians have also been the first in line to perform and to help raise millions of dollars for Americans in need back at home, from Comic Relief for the homeless to Hurricane Katrina.

For many of those who provide service in various capacities, from fireman to teachers and hospital workers — unions, guilds, pension and health plans provide financial help and health services in their difficult times.  But when comedians need help, who’s there for them?

In tough economic times, people in some professions struggle more than others.  Comedians are a case in point.  Okay, they don’t put out four alarm fires, but these talented writers, directors and performers have literally changed the laugh track of our lives.  They are pioneering legends and young performers who have calmed our collective consciousness through some of the more challenging times in American history.  They have educated us through their humor.  They have pushed boundaries; from the TV shows that we rushed home to watch, to the movies that are indelibly etched into our collective pop culture memory and the stand-up comedians that make us think while we laugh. And they deserve our support in times of need.

Comedians simply don’t have a national safety net when they are in crisis, whether it’s a need for housing, health care or other basic services.   Without a union, guild, or other protection (which many other entertainment professions such as film, television and theatre offer), comedians face unique challenges to succeed and survive.

The life of the comedian is very similar to any worker or independent contractor that moves from job to job to make their living.  Work is erratic, security is fleeting, health insurance and a respectable retirement is often just a dream.

To fill some of these gaps, entertainers have been able to turn to The Actors Fund www.actorsfund.org and The Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) www.mptvfund.org.

For 90 years, the MPTF has had a rich history of helping performers in need on the west coast in providing care and support ranging from health care services to retirement housing.  Many of comedy’s great legends have turned to MPTF and their network of services such as Larry Fine, one of the Three Stooges; long-time comedic actor Louis Nye; Jerry Colonna, Bob Hope’s side kick; comedic actress Patsy Kelly; and comedian Pat McCormick.

The Actors Fund, since 1882, has served performing arts and entertainment professionals through programs that address their unique and essential needs.  Skilled nursing care and affordable housing, social, health and employment services are all part of how The Actors Fund helps from coast to coast. From Smith and Dale (the “Sunshine Boys”) to “Dr.” Harry Stanley (the “Master of Double Talk”), who both lived in Fund residences, many comedians of all ages have turned to The Fund at different times in their lives.

In a newly created, collaborative effort to provide more services exclusively for comedians, the Entertainment Industry Foundation http://www.eifoundation.org has joined with The Actors Fund and MPTF, along with Comedy Central and MTV Networks to host “The Comedy Awards,” —  the first-ever multi-network, multi-platform, annual event dedicated to honoring and celebrating the world of comedy, premiering on Sunday, April 10, 2011, simultaneously across MTV Networks’ COMEDY CENTRAL, Spike TV, TV Land and VH1.

The purpose for creating The Comedy Awards and this new collaboration is the establishment of The American Comedy Fund, which, through donations made by the public and others at http://www.thecomedyawards.com/fund, will become the first-ever charitable fund dedicated exclusively to providing financial assistance, health benefits and other resources for comedians that qualify across the country during times of distress.  The American Comedy Fund will be administered by EIF in collaboration with the MPTF and The Actors Fund.

A few examples of how The Actors Fund and MPTF have helped comedians illustrate what can be accomplished with this new collaborative fund.

Bill, a comic and comedy writer in his early sixties, was no longer able to work by the time he was in his early fifties due to diabetes and congestive heart failure.  Beset with memory impairments and confined to a wheelchair, he received Social Security disability, a small pension for some of his writing and sporadic financial aid for medical expenses. The Actors Fund helped Bill obtain in-home meal services and home health services – basic needs that were not being met by his income.

And there’s John, a 40-something comedy writer, who has been HIV+ since 1999.  Four years ago he was facing extremely difficult health issues that affected his ability to work. The Actors Fund provided financial assistance for rent and food, and when his health improved, helped him get sideline work. Three years later when his health declined again, The Actors Fund moved him into an affordable housing residence, cutting his rent costs in half.  As his health improved, he’s been writing again — webisodes, jokes for a late night network comedy show, and he’s been hired to write for several well-known comics. In a recent interview, John said:  “Having a dedicated service to people in the entertainment industry is a true godsend. The Actors Fund made a difference in my life. Today, my health has improved, financial stress has begun to leave me, and I am focusing more on my career endeavors.”

In 1998, comedian, veteran comedy writer and performer Pat McCormick was on his way to a show when he suffered a stroke causing his car to careen into a wall and explode into flames.  Bystanders saved his life, but the stroke left him paralyzed on his left side and unable to speak.  Although, as Pat would later remind his friends and fellow comedians — he could still hum!  For the next seven years the Motion Picture & Television Fund provided medical care and emotional support, and when needed, financial assistance.  Pat McCormick was Big Enos in Smokey & the Bandit, and he wrote more gags for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for 12-years and many other comedians than anyone else.  When crisis struck, the generosity of an industry helped provide quality of life for seven years until his passing in 2005 at MPTF.

Through this new collaboration creating The Comedy Awards & The American Comedy Fund, EIF, MPTF and The Actors Fund, with extraordinary support from Comedy Central and MTV Networks, will utilize their resources and relationships in the entertainment industry to engage the public in raising much needed funds to expand the safety net for comedians.

“Caring for our own” throughout the history of entertainment, our community is often the first to come together for the betterment of those suffering wherever and whenever needed, and our community comes together to support each other from the days of vaudeville to Broadway and Hollywood today.  Through the Comedy Awards, we have found a way for our community, as well as the millions of fans entertained each year by men and woman who make us laugh in clubs, to support comics who need a helping hand.

The American Comedy Fund is a step forward, offering comedians the opportunity to attain what we all strive for and deserve in our lifetimes – a piece of the American Dream.

Lisa Paulsen, President & CEO, Entertainment Industry Foundation

Ken Sherer, CEO, Motion Picture & Television Fund

Joseph P. Benincasa, President, The Actors Fund

On Health Care Reform

March 22, 2010 Comments off

Dear Friends,

The health care reform bill passed by Congress last night will benefit every visual and performing artist and entertainment professional in this country. Everyone who supports the arts should be pleased.

Unlike the vast majority of Americans who receive their health insurance from employers or government programs, most artists are forced to find coverage for themselves and their families in the individual or direct-pay market. In most states they can be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and when it is accessible it is often either unaffordable – with premiums that can be raised as much as 39% or more in a year – or so stripped of benefits as to be virtually useless. For this reason, artists – like other self-employed workers – are twice as likely to be uninsured as the general population.

The legislation speaks directly to this unfair situation. Private insurers will no longer be permitted to deny coverage or cancel policies based on claims’ history. An essential health benefits package will be available to everyone, at levels of cost-sharing that fit their health care needs. Variations in premiums based on age, which can now be as much as a 7 to 1 ratio, will be limited to 3 to 1. State-based exchanges will be created to bring the cost-benefits of group insurance to individuals and families. Those of low to moderate means will receive credits and/or subsidies to keep their premiums at an affordable percentage of their incomes. Out-of-pocket expenses in any year will be limited to approximately $6,000 for individuals and $12,000 for families, and there will be no annual or lifetime limits on coverage.

In other words, this legislation makes available to artists health insurance that is as good or better than the best plans currently available to employees of private corporations, government workers, and union members. Its passage has done more for the health and well-being of the visual and performing arts and entertainment communities than any piece of legislation in the past fifty years.

We will be providing more information on a regular basis to you and our community. For more information, please contact James Brown, Director of Health Services. You can reach him via email at jbrown@actorsfund.org or call him directly at 212.221.7300 ext.166.

Joseph Benincasa
President and CEO,
The Actors Fund