Dave Lamb was on tour in Houston with his folk duo Brown Bird when he found himself struggling just to get through a song. He'd been feeling fatigued for several shows, but this time seemed serious. He and MorganEve Swain, his partner in the Rhode Island-based group, went to a hospital, and Lamb was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. He didn't have health insurance.
Lamb's experience is documented as part of a new series of videos from voter-registration nonprofit HeadCount and the U.S. government's Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Along with the visuals, the two groups have partnered to set up a hotline, (919) 264-0418, specifically aimed at informing musicians about their health-care options. In coordination with the program, more than 20 musical acts — among them Pearl Jam and Jim James — used social media to tell fans they should "#knowyouroptions" about health insurance via HealthCare.gov.
The occasion for all this? On October 1, the Affordable Care Act, which you may know as Obamacare, opened its doors. The rollout was plagued by technical glitches, and overshadowed by a government shutdown intended in part to delay the program altogether. But now HealthCare.gov is working, and the Obama administration says more than 3 million people have signed up for private health insurance either through that site or a state marketplace.
What it all means is that now the uninsured can shop on online "exchanges" for health-care coverage. They can't be turned away for pre-existing conditions, and if they make less than a certain income, a subsidy could be available.
HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization known for signing up unregistered voters at concerts, recognized that musicians as a profession are especially positioned to benefit — and that letting musicians know about their choices could also be a way of helping inform the general public. "Right now, people associate this health-care law more with what's happening in Washington than what's happening in their lives," says Andy Bernstein, HeadCount's executive director. "Musicians have an incredible power to help people relate to things."
Take Lamb's story, an example of how a healthy person can suddenly fall victim to a terrible illness. Brown Bird were lucky: Through a crowdfunding campaign, their fans helped raise almost $70,000 so Lamb could buy health insurance. "You think that you can't afford it," he told SPIN a day after getting home from the hospital, where he received a bone marrow transplant. "You can't afford not to sometimes."
Also among the fortunate ones — though in a much more common, far less catastrophic sense — were Seattle folk-rockers the Head and the Heart. About 10 years ago, drummer Chris Zasche broke off half of a front tooth in a skateboarding accident. A dentist glued it back in, and it lasted until just about the time the group started touring a few years ago. "It popped out one day while I was eating, and I was left with half a tooth and no money," Zasche recalls in an email. Glue was no longer an option, but a root canal and a crown might cost $1,200, which he didn't have. A friend told him about musician-assistance program MusiCares, Zasche was able to hit the road with his smile intact.
More established artists, too, have had struggles with health care. Death Cab for Cutie producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla, who hasn't had insurance through his job since he worked at Starbucks in the '90s, says buying insurance on his own used to be pricey and bewildering. The new state-by-state exchanges, he raves in a statement, "Offer something we've never seen before — an opportunity to comparison shop for health care plans in much the same way you'd compare makes and models of vacuum cleaners or toasters or any other product. And that's amazing."
Musicians in general are less likely to be insured than the rest of the population, and they're as confused as anybody about what the Affordable Care Act means for them. A 2013 survey by the Future of Music Coalition and Artists' Health Insurance Resource Center found that of more than 3,400 actors, musicians, visual artists, dancers, and filmmakers polled, 43 percent had no health insurance — twice the estimated national rate. Musicians were the least likely to be insured, and the more time they spend on music, the less likely they were to have insurance. Meanwhile, about 59 percent of musicians surveyed said they don't understand Obamacare or are unsure how it will affect them.
The penalty for not buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act is small — $95 for an individual next year, increasing to as much as $695 in 2016 — but the point of the campaign by HeadCount and the government agency that oversees the exchanges is to help musicians and fans make an informed decision. "Young people should be able to pursue their passions without having to worry about what happens if they get sick or injured," says Julie Bataille, director of the CMS Office of Communications, in a statement. "Our partnership with HeadCount allows us explain the new coverage options available at the Health Insurance Marketplace to the creative community, and to other young people who aspire to jobs and careers that haven't traditionally offered health insurance."
As for Lamb, Brown Bird plan to tour again, but first he's facing a full year of at-home recovery. He's adjusting to changes in his taste buds that resulted from his bone marrow transplant — no food tastes normal anymore — and he's fatigued and plagued with stomach problems, but he's thrilled to be home. Also, he and Swain got married, in a small ceremony with family held right before Lamb went in for his most recent procedure. "We're definitely still writing, and should have a lot of material by the time we get out on the road," he says. This time, thankfully, they'll have a much better safety net.
(Update: After this article, Lamb died at age 35 following a return of his leukemia.)