From Actor to Activist: Facing Rising Costs, Richard E. Waits Fights for Affordable Health Care

News   From Actor to Activist: Facing Rising Costs, Richard E. Waits Fights for Affordable Health Care
"All I want to do is sing and dance," says Richard E. Waits, who's been a member of Actors' Equity since 1999. But over the summer, Waits got a letter, received from Equity-League Fund, which is jointly managed by trustees and theatre employers, telling him that the health care he received through the Fund would not be extended.

Richard Waits
Richard Waits

Now he's been cast in a role he never auditioned for: the lead in a social drama about unions, show business and health coverage. So Waits, above all a performer, took the spotlight. "Am I an activist? The phone rang and I picked it up. I guess it was my turn to speak up."

Where once unions and employers took responsibility for an artist's health care, now they're ceding their role to the government, under the Affordable Care Act. But there are still gaps in the social safety net and drawbacks to the American model of health care. As the debate continues, so do rising costs. According to Waits, the problem is, "we're talking about illness and life or death, and they're talking money."

In the last few weeks, this embattled member of the artistic class has raised issues over the changes in coverage for certain members of Equity, the union that represents stage actors. Waits was featured in a New York Times column called "The Working Life"; others have expressed their dismay in other forums including The Huffington Post and Twitter. The controversy turns upon an exceptional benefit, a small group of performers and a large number.

In the twentieth century, performers faced a unique problem with regard to health care. The system was employer-based, but actors changed employers every time they took a new role. Purchasing individual coverage was incredibly expensive, and even if they could purchase it, actors would face pre-existing condition clauses.

The Equity-League Trust Fund found ingenious solutions to these problems. It pioneered a COBRA plan (which extends insurance beyond the period of employment) before those were mandated by federal law. Members who worked a certain number of weeks would be insured for the full year. Actors who had been inactive for a while — always called back, never cast — could pay their own premiums after their COBRA had lapsed, so that they could keep their insurance.

What made the last feature especially progressive is that it allowed members of ten years' standing to keep paying their premium indefinitely. As long as they did, performers were effectively (but not technically) covered until retirement. Then in July, the Fund, which manages the joint union-employer accounts, announced a major change to the program: They would reduce the members' option to pay from perpetuity to 18 months.

Out of Equity's roughly 50,000 members, only 300 rely on this 'self-pay' option to extend their health care. Roughly a third of that group will be exempt from the alteration to the rules (more on those exemptions in a moment). But it's those 200 actors that Richard Waits is concerned about, especially because he's one of them.

"On the website, looking at the make-up of the union, it seemed to me that the action would disproportionately affect the older members, the non-Caucasian members, and the women. It's just a fact: non-Caucasian people do not have as many job opportunities in our business. Men work more than women, the older actors don't have as many jobs as the younger actors."

Whether or not that assessment is correct, one thing is certain: those 200 Equity members are the actors who aren't getting cast. The self-pay option was created to help performers qualify for full insurance, even if they hadn't worked the requisite amount. In addition, many of these members have chronic conditions, so they pay higher premiums themselves but those premiums cover less than half of the costs.

Chris Brockmeyer, co-chair of the Equity-League Trust Fund, had managed to retain this unique benefit for years, although it has been extraordinarily costly for the Fund. "But once the Affordable Care Act went into effect and the marketplaces became available, we made a decision to discontinue the benefit and provide people to transition to the marketplaces, the key being we didn't want anyone to lose health coverage." Now, under the ACA almost no one will go uninsured. Citizens have more options in the state exchanges, they may qualify for subsidies and they cannot be denied if they have a pre-existing condition. The Equity-League trustees have gone further, attempting to minimize the change in rules as much as they can for as many people as they can. For example, they have set rigorous criteria for the condition of the exchanges, which only 15 states meet; members who live in one of the other 35 states can stay in the program.

Given its efforts to limit the impact as much as possible, why has the Fund made the change at all? Mainly it's about the Fund's solvency and the rising costs of health care. The unique nature of the clause means that the Fund spends $3 million subsidizing those 300 members' benefits.

"Our fund's mission is very simple: it is to provide quality benefits to the largest possible number of participants," explains Madeleine Fallon, the other co-chair of the Fund. "If you're losing three million dollars on a group of people who now have an alternative, are you doing your duty by saying we'll continue to lose $3 million — until we either have to cut benefits for everybody or until we have to go insolvent?"

This informal mission, which Fallon thinks of as "quality benefits," is governed by a set of federal laws that define its scope and remit. The Equity-League Trust Fund is what's called a joint labor-management fund. That is, the union appoints half the trustees and the employers appoint half. Neither side can make changes without the other's agreement. Both Brockmeyer (the employer co-chair) and Fallon (the union co-chair) stress their legal responsibility to the fund itself. They also carefully distinguish its mission from both Actors' Equity and from the Broadway League and its producing partners.

In this case, the trustees of the Fund saw the ACA as an opportunity to divest themselves of the burdensome costs of a small subset of Equity members. As Brockmeyer states, "Most likely, people will find less expensive coverage on the marketplaces, particularly when you include the subsidies that they will be getting if they are low-income individuals."

That's cold comfort for Waits, who found his costs would be higher at the exchanges, to the tune of almost $50 a month. The arts can be seen as a delicate and evolving ecosystem, and the ACA has disrupted that—mostly in positive ways for artists and producers alike. But Waits wants to remind everyone that these are individuals involved, and not systems. "I had someone ask me on Twitter, 'Who do you blame, Obamacare or the unions?' You can't point your finger at any one thing, you can say things like 'It's the system,' but who are you talking about? It feels like we're in 'The Matrix.'"

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