Twin Cities artists talk Obamacare

STORY BY SHEILA REGAN | PHOTOS BY COURTNEY PERRY | Updated 3/6/2014

Underinsured creatives share their experiences with the Affordable Care Act.

It’s become an all-too familiar tale: A busy, talented local artist unexpectedly runs into a dire medical crisis, but has no insurance to lean on. Once word gets around, community members pull together to organize a fund­raiser, but it’s no small feat and it may not even bring in enough cash.

Now that the Affordable Care Act (the so-called Obamacare) is in full swing, and more people are signing up for Minnesota’s version of the program, known as MNsure, will artists finally catch a break?

As the March 31 deadline to enroll looms, uninsured people are weighing the pros and cons of a program that’s been embroiled in controversy from the start. MNsure is starting to overcome some of its tech wrinkles, and more than 104,000 people have enrolled in it so far. Many are artists and others working in creative fields who have historically had limited options for coverage, said Nikki Hunt, health care program director at St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts.

Springboard is helping artists navigate the system, thanks to a $50,000 federal outreach grant. Artists often lack coverage because they work independently or on temporary contracts, forcing them to shoulder the burden themselves, Hunt said.

A 2008 report from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts spells it out: Artists are more than two times likelier to not have health insurance as are other Minnesotans. Fifteen percent of full-time artists had no insurance. Another report, from LINCnet, shows that artists are more likely to have catastrophic health insurance (a plan with a very high deductible, which is only useful if something horrible happens) than non-artists. When it comes to regular checkups or everyday health care issues, artists’ needs aren’t being met, Hunt said.

People can sign up by March 31 to avoid paying the penalty, but MNsure recommends enrolling by March 15 to get coverage for April. Vita.mn talked to a handful of local artists about what the new law means to them. Check out their stories and decide for yourself whether to join the great Obama­care experiment.

 

Jeremy Messersmith: The artist entrepreneur

Singer/songwriter Jeremy Messersmith can testify to the challenges of navigating health care as an artist. Several years ago, he quit his full-time job as an instructor at McNally Smith College of Music because he found that being tied to a regular job limited his creative options.

“I would have loved to have toured a lot more around my first couple records,” he said, “but the most I could do was two to three weeks of touring a year around the U.S., because that was all I could fit into working a full-time job.”

Unfortunately, after he left his job and the benefits that came with it, medical expenses skyrocketed for Messersmith and his wife, Vanessa.

About a year ago, Messersmith had surgery at the Mayo Clinic. “It was just a huge financial hit,” he said. “At one point, just to make sure I was covered, I had to pay for two plans. I was coming off another plan for a couple of months because I didn’t want to have a gap in coverage, but it would be a while before the benefits kicked in. So for a long while we were paying about double our mortgage in just health insurance.”

So Messersmith was thrilled about MNsure, and the prospect of saving thousands a year on a higher-quality insurance plan, when he signed up in late 2013. Like many others, he ran into technical snafus. Eventually, he spoke with a representative who enrolled the couple in the program manually.

In the end, it was worth the hassle, he said. He was able to get a plan that saves the Messersmiths a small fortune every month. “My premiums before for my wife and I were $600 a month — and that was for insurance that wasn’t particularly good, but it was there in case of catastrophic stuff and whatever else.” Under their new plan, the Messersmiths pay $350 a month for “way better insurance,” he said. They have a $750 deductible, which is much lower than what it had been before, plus $250 a month in savings and “a lot less out-of-pocket costs,” he said.

Messersmith hopes the new law means greater freedom — not just for artists, “but also for small-business owners and people that want to quit their day job and do their thing,” he said. Now Messersmith is enjoying growing success with the release of his new album “Heart Murmurs,” a gig at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and an extensive tour that includes a stop in the U.K. and shows at the upcoming South by Southwest festival.

 

Laura Holway & Ben McGinley: Freedom from the ‘pre-existing conditions’ trap

Choreographer Laura Holway and her husband, Ben McGinley, who works in video production, have been working hard to eke out a living as freelancers. But getting health insurance has been difficult, in part because of their pre-existing conditions, even ones that seem innocuous.

A few years ago, Holway got health insurance through her then-employer, a local restaurant. But when her hours were cut, she found out she was going to lose her coverage. Before that took effect, she decided to get one more physical examination. After that appointment revealed an abnormal pap spear, “No one would cover me because I had a pre-existing condition,” she said.

Holway was finally able to get very limited care, which amounted to $170 per month “for basically no coverage,” she said.