Austin Musicians Don't Let Their Babies Grow Up Without Health Care

Two things once united most musicians in Austin, Texas, the "Live Music Capitol of the World": lack of health insurance and wages averaging less than $16,000 per year. A serious illness or accident often killed the music faster than anything else. Then came the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

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Austin's music industry brings in about $2 billion a year to the local economy, but a lot of musicians themselves do not earn enough to cover their basic health care needs.

Get close enough to downtown Austin, Texas, and it's not hard to hear why it's called the "Live Music Capitol of the World."

Get a little closer, and the musicians themselves tell a quieter story.

Take John Pointer. He's a beat-boxing, boot-stomping singer-songwriter who also happens to have Type 1 diabetes. Like most musicians in Austin, he makes less than $16,000 per year, and he can't afford health insurance.

"So many people said, 'Well, then just get a job,'" Pointer said. "But I think the 10 Austin music awards, and the national television commercials, and the stages on which I've performed, and the audiences that come to see me would disagree that I should just quit and get a job that gives me health care."

Having diabetes made it difficult for Pointer to find an affordable primary care doctor in Austin. He was paying several hundred dollars a month for coverage in the state's high-risk insurance pool -- an amount that consumed much of his take-home cash.

Listen to John Pointer's "The Flame":

Then one day, Pointer decided to check into an unusual program designed for people like him. It's called the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, or HAAM.

Similar in some ways to an insurance company, the group connects with area health providers, works out reimbursement rates and helps keep out-of-pocket costs for members manageable.

HAAM executive director Carolyn Schwartz says it's the least this city can do.

"The music industry brings in about $2 billion to our economy," she said. "The musicians themselves are very low-income, and our businesses rely on music."

Schwartz helped launch HAAM in 2005 and continues to run the group today. She's quick to point out that despite the similarities, HAAM isn't health insurance.

Musicians making less than 250 percent of the poverty level are linked directly with health care providers offering reduced rates for everything from primary care to vision and hearing. HAAM pays for most of the extra costs through grants and fundraising.

"What we've done is we've leveraged resources that were already in the community, serving working poor and we've carved out some spaces to serve the musicians," Schwartz said. "So it does only help the musicians while they're here in Austin but our musicians had nothing before HAAM."

Listen to Ginger Leigh's "Better Than Well:

The noteworthy result, according to musician Ginger Leigh, is knowing that an unexpected health disaster won't lead to financial ruin. Before HAAM, she spent many years uninsured and hoping for the best.

"I was mostly terrified," she said. "And I wouldn't go to doctors as much as I probably should have because when you can't afford it, you're afraid they're going to find something that's a really big problem and all of a sudden your entire life is going to change because you're going to be strapped with hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills if it is something."

That very easily could have been Leigh's story. But she discovered HAAM a couple of years before she found a lump in her right breast.

Many procedures followed, including a lumpectomy, a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. But to Leigh' relief, most of that was paid for through small copays, the charity care donated by a local health group and HAAM.

"I would have financially been completely devastated to have had to walk away with $130-$150,000 in medical expenses," she said. "And I certainly couldn't keep doing music to pay for that."

Leigh is now cancer-free.

So could this kind of setup be replicated in other parts of the country? Soul singer Akina Adderley doesn't see why not. She's one of 3,000 musicians who have accessed HAAM's benefits so far. More join every day.

Listen to Akina Adderley & The Vintage Playboys' "Say Yes":

Even though some young adults say they don't need health coverage, most of those enrolled in HAAM are 40 or younger, healthy and hoping to stay that way.

"Because being able to get up and get out and perform in shows and record on albums, that's our livelihood," Adderley said. "Without access to medication or treatment or therapy or things of that nature, when it comes right down to it, when you get sick, you are just out and not getting any income in or taking proactive steps to make yourself better."

It's not clear what the impact will be on organizations like HAAM when the rest of the health care reform law goes live. In Texas, the future is especially murky because officials say they won't expand Medicaid to cover more low-income Americans.

But whatever happens, for the musicians of tomorrow, there's a health care option out there they can afford -- if only within Austin's famous city limits.

Hear More from These Artists:

Akina Adderley & The Vintage Playboys

Ginger Leigh

John Pointer

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