Artists live with health risks

Artists live with health risks

Skyrocketing premiums have forced many musicians, painters, writers and others in the arts to forgo health insurance — and risk financial ruin when catastrophic illness strikes.

Dave Marston, a longtime Rogue Valley musician and choral director, left more than $20,000 in medical bills when he died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease Monday. Like many in the arts, where pay is traditionally low and intermittent, he had no health insurance.

"Dave was never insured. He was always healthy as a horse," said Tami Marston, his widow and a musician, actress and choir director.

Tami Marston said she and her two teenage daughters, Sarah and Rose, would sometimes buy private insurance or qualify for the state insurance pool, paying $300 to $600 a month in premiums.

"It became obscene, with co-pay and deductibles of $500 to $1,000," she said. "We ended up paying 100 percent of bills. ... You pay through the nose and it does nothing for you. It's a horrible situation."

The family finally found insurance too expensive and let it lapse.

"You live in fear with pain and symptoms and put off going to the doctor because you're scared it would be established as a pre-existing condition (and therefore not insurable)," she said.

Tami Marston eventually worked enough as a choir director to obtain workplace insurance, but premiums would have cost $1,100 a month for her family and "we just couldn't afford it."

"It was untenable," she said. "It's not a livable or humane situation. There's nothing in place to help people."

The Marstons will have to sell their home this summer. Last weekend the musical community rallied around the family, raising more than $24,000 in two days of benefit concerts to help pay off the medical bills.

"I'm grateful for the security that the community gifted us with," Tami Marston said, adding she believes the family's real insurance was the love and goodwill of the community, to which her husband contributed for more than 35 years. "But it's still a little dicey and a huge burden to provide for the family."

Ashland painter and art teacher Craig Honeycutt in 2005 racked up $100,000 in hospital bills when part of his colon had to be removed — and was grateful when he was put in a hardship category and 70 percent of it was forgiven.

"I still owe $12,000," said Honeycutt, who is uninsured. "I'm paying it off at $150 a month. I hope I eat well enough and exercise so that nothing happens again."

Falling gravely ill is bad enough, but compounding it with financial devastation is much worse, he said.

"The doctors told me not to worry about the bills. You have to cop an attitude and you can't worry about money because you have to work the disease and live with it," he said.

While many artists get a "day job" to pay the bills, most feel called to their art, Honeycutt said. "It's my way of seeing, thinking and teaching. Because artists have to be so disciplined, people think we should be rich, but that's not the way it is."

Musician David Gabriel of Ashland, who worked with Dave Marston as a member of the Beatles cover band the Nowhere Men, ran up a $56,000 debt last year with surgery for a detached appendix. A benefit concert raised $12,000. His catastrophic health-insurance plan responded with spotty coverage, he said.

"The policy was incomplete and you don't know that until you deal with it," said Gabriel, who has a day job pressure-washing homes and is still paying off medical bills. "They just paid toward the hospital, not the surgeon or anesthesiologist or specialists."

Gabriel now pays $260 a month for insurance he obtained through an organization for self-employed workers.

"If I really need it, it would just be a buffer. I'd still owe tens of thousands of dollars," he said.

Musician and music teacher Bil Leonhart of Ashland was lucky. His head and neck cancer came when he was on Medicare, leaving him with only $6,000 in bills, which will take him about five years to pay off.

"You bet it's difficult," he said.

Leonhart, who works as a caregiver for sick and dying people, got financial help from Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which assists career musicians struggling with disability, illness and problems associated with aging.

Some artists, such as jazz guitarist Ed Dunsavage, find coverage through a spouse's job, but when the recession hit, the employer had to delete family members from the policy. So Dunsavage got a catastrophic policy at $170 a month.

"It's tough to live with," he said. "Even with insurance, doctor visits are out of pocket. I got it (insurance) in case of car accidents, cancer or weeks in the hospital, so I won't lose everything I own."

Central Point physician Roma Sprung, who plays classical violin and guitar and whose boyfriend also is a musician, said the life of an uninsured artist is "precarious, a gamble," a situation exacerbated because most artists don't see doctors for preventive care. "They're desperate when illness happens and a lot have friendly doctors who take care of them," she said.

"It's a very difficult situation for really fine artists, who put in as much training as I did to become a doctor," she added. "But there's no recognition (of their plight) in our society and that could make them bitter. They do their art because they have to."

Sprung said artists and musicians in general face a minimum of $500 a month for medical insurance, and that's with a deductible from $2,500 to $7,000. "So they don't do basic care."

Larry Marshall of Ashland, a professional fundraiser who did pro-bono events for both Marston and Gabriel, said he's found that fine and performing artists "for the most part, just don't have adequate health insurance."

They don't know how to negotiate costs with doctors and hospitals and aren't aware of less-costly resources, such as the Community Health Centers and La Clinica, he said.

Artists interviewed for this story said they believe American society greatly undervalues their contributions to quality of life, and that universal health coverage is the only viable answer to the crisis.

Sprung, a Canadian, said her native country's culture is similar to the U.S., but provides universal health care, and "doesn't have the same lack of concern for other people and isn't quite as greedy."

She added, "Being a doctor should be a calling, not a business, trying to make a profit off sickness. The insurance industry is a problem, too, trying to make a buck like everyone else. "¦ No one can afford insurance except people who make a lot of money."

The complexity and paperwork of insurance, Sprung said, requires five office people for each doctor and "it makes me ill."

Being in the arts in this society, said Leonhart, "you have a constant feeling that there's a gross inequity and that causes a lot of existential tension. The answer is health care as a human right. It's part of civilized society."

Artists and musicians are vital to making life worth living, said Gabriel, and "we need universal health care; every other civilized nation has it and we drag our feet because of the profit motive."

"We (in America) enjoy art, but don't support it," said Tami Marston, who suggested a return to the Renaissance tradition of being a personal patron of an artist. "You can call yourself a supporter of the arts, but if you're not supporting the artist, you're not supporting the arts.

"There's a perception out there that artists will do it for the glory, for free, if offered the opportunity to do something beautiful, if it feeds their soul," she added. "But it takes time away from my family and I started saying no. Would you call a plumber and ask him to do it free?"

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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