Broken strings

When it comes to health insurance, musicians often hit a low note

Sometimes all musicians can make are broken beats.

Sometimes all musicians can make are broken beats.


Matt McCord faced losing his health care just when he needed it the most.

The drummer and producer, who over the years has made a living performing and recording with the likes of Team Sleep, Cake, Ed Harcourt and Jackie Greene, lost his health insurance after his band Tinfed ended its contract with Hollywood Records.

Then he and his wife separated. Before the divorce was finalized, however, doctors discovered nodules on the musician’s thyroid—a condition that required surgery and extensive follow-up treatment.

Because McCord received his health insurance through his wife’s coverage, he was challenged with a serious dilemma. In the end, he convinced his soon-to-be ex-wife to postpone the divorce for several months.

A year and a half later, however, McCord is now like countless musicians in Sacramento and beyond: making enough money to get by but working in an industry where health-insurance plans are the exception, not the rule.

“I’ve toured and recorded with a lot of acts, and health insurance is never part of contract when music is concerned,” McCord said. “The only reason I had it [before] was [because] Hollywood Records is unionized.”

Although his thyroid condition requires regular doctor visits, McCord says he hasn’t had it checked out in months. His pre-existing condition prices him out of any affordable health-insurance options and, although McCord qualified for COBRA, the federally funded program that temporarily extends health-care benefits, its $600 to $700 monthly price tag (jacked up by that pre-existing condition, of course) was cost-prohibitive.

“I don’t have anything at all now, and I’m supposed to [get my thyroid] checked every three months,” McCord said. “But I’ve only had it checked once, and that’s when I went to a county clinic, waited a couple of hours and had to pay a couple hundred dollars to get a blood test.”

Now the 38-year-old musician, who plans to spend his summer touring with electronic musician Tycho, says that even though he’s doing “OK” financially, he’s nonetheless contemplating a move to San Francisco where subsidized insurance is available to those who meet certain income requirements.

“It’s difficult being a musician at the level that I am. I’m stuck in the mode of going out on tour and leaving for a week or months,” he said. “I’ve looked into getting a day job, but it doesn’t work out, because who’s going to hire a guy who has to leave for tour for a few weeks at a time?”

Across the United States, there are a few cities that offer subsidized care to artists. In Austin, for example, musicians can utilize HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), which offers low-cost medical and dental services for low-income professional musicians. In New Orleans, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic is funded through donations and grants to provide services to local artists.

Nationally, musicians can tap into various resources such as MusicPro Insurance, which serves as a clearinghouse for low-cost health-care policies.

But the cheapest options will always go to those who have no pre-existing condition, and unless you’re superhuman, immune to all viruses, disease and ailments, that’s a nearly impossible requirement to meet.

For Sacramento singer Amy Anne, (who uses only her first name professionally), health insurance turned into a luxury after she was laid off from her insurance job in 2009.

Initially, Amy Anne, who decided to teach and perform music full time, utilized her COBRA benefits, but eventually her cost for the insurance jumped from $180 to $550 a month. Even though the 34-year-old singer makes a decent living performing with tribute bands such as Love Train and Steely Scam, she could no longer afford to pay the premium.

And because she had pre-existing conditions—a doctor’s recommendation to correct a deviated septum; a small spot of nonmelanoma skin cancer had recently removed been from her arm—Amy Anne wasn’t eligible for more-affordable private insurance.

Now the singer, who is divorced with a 7-year-old daughter (who receives health insurance through the government-funded Healthy Families program), says that living without medical benefits is a bit like playing Russian roulette.

“I’m just hoping that nothing happens—I’m a very safe driver and I’m sticking with my Emergen-C,” she said with a laugh.

But it’s no joke. And Amy Anne, who recently launched Be Luv Music, a nonprofit Web radio station, says it’s time to get a full-time job with benefits.

“I have my 401(k) and an emergency fund, [but] it’s really scary not having health insurance.”

The thought of a career change also occasionally crosses Charles Albright’s mind. The 32-year-old local musician, who works part time as an adjunct math professor at a local community college, says he’s currently contemplating purchasing health care offered through the school district, but he’s not sure if they make financial sense in relation to his actual take-home pay.

Albright says he can’t remember the last time he had health insurance; currently he uses credit cards to deal with emergencies and other medical necessities. That plastic came in handy when he needed to charge $2,000 to pay for the removal of a wisdom tooth, but a bad case of poison oak left him thinking twice about his options.

That’s when an employee at a low-cost health-care clinic prescribed prednisone to treat the infection but, instead of giving Albright graduated doses of the steroid—standard practice—he prescribed five strong doses.

The result? Severe panic attacks and a personal tipping point.

“Maybe if I had a primary health-care physician, that wouldn’t have happened,” Albright said. “The workers at the clinic are great, but I got lost in the shuffle.”

Now, Albright says, he’s thinking about the possibility of a full-time job and trading in some of his youthful ideals for a little more health security.

“I don’t know that, when I was 20, I was thinking about getting a full-time job or working for the state,” he said. “Not having health insurance has had a profound impact on [my] life.”