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Massachusetts Artists Get Health Care Help

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Massachusetts Artists Get Health Care Help

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Massachusetts Artists Get Health Care Help

Massachusetts Artists Get Health Care Help

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Artists are used to starving — and going without basics such as health insurance. But thousands of artists and other creative types in Massachusetts are now getting state-subsidized health care. The artists say this allows them to more effectively contribute to the creative economy.

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Starving artists don't just go without food; they often go without health insurance. Well, not in Massachusetts, where the new state health-insurance program is covering artists for the first time. Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN: Artist Xylor Jane lives and works in a low-rent warehouse in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She's finishing up paintings for an upcoming show about near-death experiences. Each canvass is filled with a rose of multicolored metallic numbers.

Ms. XYLOR JANE (Artist, Holyoke, Massachusetts): It represents, like, a substantial segment of time of someone's life. That painting is called The Ice Bridge.

BROWN: Jane earns her living selling her work. She says she makes between $10,000 and $15,000 a year, just enough to pay for rent and food. For years, she got her urgent health care from free clinics. When she moved to Massachusetts last year, she qualified for the state's subsidized health coverage. First thing she did was get a long-needed eye exam. After that, she developed painful fibroids in her uterus and had to get a hysterectomy.

Ms. JANE: So far, I've only paid out, like, $5 total for everything that I - for all the medications that I've received and a hysterectomy and a pair of glasses. It's cost me $5. So, that's pretty amazing.

BROWN: Jane is part of a new demographic benefiting from Massachusetts' landmark health-reform law passed in 2006. It required all residents to have health insurance, and it also expanded state assistance. Like most states, Massachusetts has always provided health care to poor children, single parents and the disabled through Medicaid. Now, many more people are eligible for a highly subsidized state plan called Commonwealth Care. It covers people earning three times the federal poverty level, up to $31,000 in gross annual income, in other words, a large number of artists, writers and performers. Again, Xylor Jane.

Ms. JANE: Right now, I feel really grateful to have it because I just had a lot of work done that I don't - I think would have been a lot more difficult to get through without knowing that it was paid for.

BROWN: Kathy Bitetti says the benefits of the law go beyond peace of mind. She's a visual artist in Boston who runs an advocacy group called the Artists Foundation. She considers health insurance for artists a direct investment in the creative economy.

Ms. KATHY BITETTI (Director, Artists Foundation): If you look at Europe, we're at a competitive disadvantage, because in Europe, people don't have to worry about where they get their health care from. So, people aren't tied to jobs to keep their health care.

BROWN: Unlike many U.S. artists. Bitetti says one dance company in Boston had to fold because the dancers couldn't get enough time off from their other jobs to go on tour. One national arts foundation did a survey of its grantees and found that a quarter of them use their grant money to pay for health care. Harvard Professor Nancy Turnbull sits on the state board that oversees health reform. She's delighted the state can now help lift that burden. She believes everyone deserves access to health care, even those who follow a low-wage path by personal choice. That's a significant departure from the way Medicaid has traditionally been allocated.

Professor NANCY TURNBULL (Health Policy, Harvard University): If you're an artist or a writer who, you know, isn't pregnant, doesn't have kids, isn't disabled, you're just a poor man, single man, you're not deserving. But now, you are under Commonwealth Care, and that's a tremendous advance to me.

BROWN: There are still artists not getting Commonwealth Care, including many who make just above the income cutoff. Legally, most of them have to buy costly private insurance or face a tax penalty. Artist advocate Kathy Bitetti is lobbying the state to let all self-employed workers, artists and others deduct their expenses when applying for state health care. That would bring many more into the program. But in this economy, it's unlikely Massachusetts can afford to be any more generous than it already is. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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