The Equity-League Health Fund, which administers healthcare benefits to members of Actors’ Equity Association, has announced new changes beginning in 2021 that will require more weeks’ work to be eligible for a level of coverage similar to the current plan.
Currently, Equity members are required to submit 11 weeks of work during a 12-month lookback period for six months of coverage, or 19 weeks for 12 months. Under the new guidelines, members will have to work at least 16 weeks to qualify for six months of Tier 1 coverage, which provides benefits similar to the current Health Fund plan but with higher deductibles, copays, and out-of-pocket maximums.
Tier 2 and an In-network only Tier 3 plans will offer coverage to those who submit 14 weeks or 12 weeks, respectively, but with higher out-of-pocket costs. (The current 11-week requirement will be accepted for Tier 3 coverage in the first six-month period, January 1–June 1.) Premiums for all three plans remain the same at $300 per quarter, with buy-up and buy-down options between the second and third tiers.
The changes, the Fund says, are the result of a widespread lack of employer contributions—which had financed 88 percent of the Fund—in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown of theatres across the country. In a statement, the Fund trustees (comprised 50-50 of Equity members and League producers but independent of both groups) stated that the new plan is “essential for ensuring that the Health Fund can survive this crisis.” They added, “The new plan design provides a meaningful healthcare benefit that is accessible to as many participants as feasible.” The Fund also stated it would revisit requirements in 2022 based on performance opportunities and employer contributions.
Representatives for Actors’ Equity, however, have voiced their dissatisfaction with the new coverage options, and its Council had advised its members who are Fund trustees to withdraw support for the changes until a demography study had been conducted. Particularly, Equity cited concern for the effects it would have on BIPOC participants, pregnant participants, and those living outside of the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles areas.
“I am deeply frustrated that today’s announcement was made against the wishes of the Council and that no study has been returned to Council about how these changes might impact our members who face hiring bias,” said Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle. “We all understand that there is no escaping the devastating loss of months of employer contributions nationwide, and no alternative aside from making adjustments to the plan. But I believe that the Fund had both the obligation and the financial reserves to take the time to make better choices.”
Addressing Equity's three primary charges, the Fund's trustees told Playbill they have begun working with the union to gather demographic data to assess the impact on BIPOC individuals and have added certain parental benefits (including partial COBRA subsidies for new parents who lose coverage through employment) to the new plan.
In response to concerns for members outside major markets, the Fund trustees cited data from last year to make the case that Tier 1 coverage would be accessible outside of these hubs: "Looking at Fund data from 2019, 65 percent of participants who would have qualified for Tier 1 did so without any work on Broadway or touring productions, whereas just 23 percent would have qualified for Tier 1 with only this type of work."
The demands for continued protection fall upon an industry that will likely weather repercussions from the pandemic for the foreseeable future, impacting everyone from producers and theatre owners to affiliated business such as rehearsal studios and design shops. Both Equity and the Fund have called for COBRA subsidies for individuals who are out of work, which was included in the House of Representative’s initial Heroes Act. The new version of the act, however, replaces this with subsidies through health insurance marketplaces or state exchanges.
The Heroes Act does include the Save Our Stages bill, which would provide $10 billion in grants to independent venues, which could lead to more employment opportunities for artists.