Help! I Need Coverage: Health Insurance for Freelance Dancers

Article excerpt

Alice Vienneau, a mid-career dancer who had worked in shows both on and off-Broadway, prided herself because, "I was never sick a day in my life." During a three-month lapse in coverage between gigs, a case of appendicitis landed her in the hospital twice and saddled her with $80,000 in medical bills. She seriously considered filing for bankruptcy.

Stories like Vienneau's are not uncommon in the U.S., where insurance is often expensive or elusive. The heated discussion about health care in this country directly affects many artists. Dancers never decide to go into their profession just for the salary or the benefits. They want to dance. But to dance, you have to be healthy. Knowing where to go for proper health care can make a huge difference in career fulfillment.

"I have seen dancers with the attitude 'I'm young, I'm strong, I'll never be sick,' " says Vienneau, now a social worker for The Dancers' Resource at the Actors Fund in New York City. "We all know the collateral injuries that occur as a result of favoring a foot, knee, or hip. The truth is that the stressors on a dancer's body are so profound--they're all the time, not when we're just in rehearsal or performance."

There are three reasons why dancers need to seek proper health coverage. First of all, you want to prevent crippling debt. A bout of kidney stones or a car accident can crush your finances. Secondly, you need good care that is close to you. Lastly, you want better health outcomes. If you get regular checkups, you are less likely to have chronic illnesses or injuries.

So what resources are available? If you have the money, you can buy an individual policy. An HMO (health maintenance oragnization) provides health services through a specific network of doctors and providers with a primary care physician coordinating any referrals. A PPO (preferred provider organization) or a POS (point of service) policy allows members to use services outside of the network as well. An HSA (health saving account) combines tax-sheltered accounts for health needs with a high-deductible plan. (A deductible is the amounts of money you pay annually out-of-pocket for service before the insurance kicks in.) An excellent database for information on private insurance policies and state rules is at www.ehealthinsurance.com.

The problem is that health insurance can be so costly that it's out of reach for many freelance dancers. There is also the issue of pre-existing conditions--a problem that Congress is currently trying to sort out. A pre-existing condition can include anything from asthma to diabetes to a torn ligaments. If you live in New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts or Maine, you cannot be denied coverage due to preexisting conditions. In the other 45 states, your fate is largely in the hands of the insurance companies.

If you had insurance through a job and you are terminated or leave, federal protection under COBRA allows workers to continue their group coverage for up to 18 months. When your COBRA coverage ends, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guarantees access to insurance coverage to certain individuals if they had at least 18 months of continuous insurance coverage, the last day of which was under a group plan, and they are not eligible for any public or group health plans. Clauses that prevent coverage because of a pre-existing condition can be knocked out in those cases.

But what are the other options for those who haven't had or don't have steady insurance from an employer? Several freelance unions, such as Fractured Atlas and the Freelancers Union, or organizations like Mediabistro.com, can help dancers obtain basic coverage in some states when they join as members. According to Marie Ortiz, Fractured Atlas' health care program director, the group sponsors two plans in New York--one with a $10,000 deductible and a monthly premium of $142.98, and another with a $5,000 deductible with a premium of $212. …