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Music Issue > Music Issue

Bad Medicine

Local musicians mobilize for affordable health care

Chuck Kerr


Less than three months ago, doctors rushed jazz trombonist Ron Wilkins into the hospital when they discovered that his kidneys weren’t functioning well.

Though he’s revered in jazz circles, widely admired as an educator, and boasts an impressive musical résumé, Wilkins found himself treated as a second-class citizen by the American healthcare system. He was teaching in the music department at UTSA, but fell through the medical-coverage cracks because he hadn’t been a university employee long enough to qualify for health insurance.

In an election year when the nuances of universal health-insurance plans make for hot debate points, Wilkins’ plight offers a reminder that life without health coverage tends to be the norm for most working American musicians. Fortunately for Wilkins, San Antonio’s jazz community rallied around him by playing a handful of benefit concerts to help pay his mounting medical bills. In addition to more than $6,500 raised by the benefits, both the Methodist Hospital and South Texas Medical Center, where Wilkins received treatment, decided to label his case charitable and waive about $54,000 of the final bill.

“I’ve been blessed to get this kind of treatment and have my bills excused,” says the gregarious Wilkins. “I thank God for it and all the people who have helped. But for every guy like me who’s gotten this kind of treatment, there are at least 40 to 100 times more who haven’t.”

Wilkins is one of many musicians who’s had intermittent health-care over the years, due to the fact that it’s common to pay anywhere from $300 to $500 a month for coverage if you’re not tied to an employer-based plan. Insurance is often the first sacrifice when money gets thin, forcing a decision between having coverage or essentials like food and shelter.

In light of these concerns, local jazz singer-songwriter Bett Butler has organized a public conversation about national health-care reform, inviting anyone concerned about the state of health care in the United States to join in. Though Butler and her husband, standup bassist Joël Dilley, have coverage, she relates that they pay $500 a month out of pocket in addition to a $5,000 deductible per person each year. The first public conversation took place at The Cove on February 4, with more slated to follow.

Dr. Herb Keyser, a San Antonio-based obstetrician who’s written two books on the health-insurance issue, attended the gathering at The Cove. His second book, Prescription for Disaster: Healthcare in America, describes how every Western industrialized country in the world, with the exception of the United States, uses a single-payer system. “Our government keeps perpetrating this idea that our system is the best, when all data shows it’s much closer to the worst in the world,” Keyser says. “There’s only one reason why we don’t have a single-payer system, and it’s because it’s completely controlled by the multi-trillion-dollar insurance industry.”

He condemns our current employer-based system because it forces people without full-time jobs to pay exorbitant costs for coverage. Of the three major Democratic presidential candidates who took positions on the issue, Keyser felt John Edwards offered the best solution.

“Edwards understood that the insurance companies aren’t gonna negotiate with you, and they’ll keep everything for themselves for as long as they can,” he says. Keyser feels Hillary Clinton’s plan is the second best because, unlike Barack Obama, she would mandate coverage, but suggests that flaws lie in her dealings with the insurance industry.

The amount of political discussion devoted to health insurance (16 minutes at a recent Clinton-Obama debate), coupled with the impact of Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, suggests that health-insurance concerns have reached a critical mass.

One English doctor practicing in the National Health Service tells Moore in Sicko that he’s never had to refuse care to someone who needed it. He also notes that if more of his patients stop smoking, have lower blood pressure, and get mental-health reviews, he gets paid more. The account offers a stark contrast to the United States, where HMO practitioners are given bonuses for denying care.

“Every other industrialized country manages to provide health care for everybody,” Butler says. “We treat health care as a commodity, to be bought and sold, while other countries treat it as the basic human right that it is. Everybody contributes to taking care of that basic human right for the population.”

The recent struggles of San Antonio’s jazz community bring to mind another demographic — twentysomething musicians who don’t spend their modest paychecks on insurance because they’re less concerned with health problems: the creative wing of the so-called “young invincibles.”

This group frequently employs the “out of sight, out of mind” motto with regard to preventative medicine, often to their detriment. Chrissy Bliss, singer for local bands The Undercovers and Bliss, doesn’t have coverage but uses herbal and vitamin supplements because alternative medicine is all she can afford right now. She describes a recent strep-throat infection that was so bad she reluctantly went to Texas Med Clinic and swiftly spent every penny of the $200 she’d made that weekend on the office visit, swab, and basic amoxicillin prescription.

“Musicians book gigs months in advance. We don’t have the luxury of calling in sick and canceling the gig,” she says. “For a vocalist, strep throat is mortifying. Sometimes I have to sing when I’m sick, but it’s causing further damage to vocal cords that are already injured.”

Also helping Butler organize the health-care-
awareness group is John Magaldi, a veteran jazz musician with plenty of painful personal experience to draw from. Magaldi’s wife of 33 years, vocalist-pianist Joan Steele Magaldi, passed away in December 2006 after living and working all over the world with her husband. After being remarkably healthy her whole life, Joan was suddenly hospitalized with a respiratory problem and discovered she’d contracted Legionnaires’ disease.

“Things got so bad during the last five-year period of her life, we had to file for bankruptcy in 2005 because the prescription costs were sky high,” Magaldi says. “One of her prescriptions was running about $300 bucks a month.”

The couple was on Medicare and had supplemental insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield but still struggled to meet expenses. Magaldi recalls one year when Joan was hospitalized a few days before Christmas. “Finally they released her the day after Christmas, and we paid our $5,000 deductible,” he says. “Two days after New Year’s she had a relapse and had to go back into the hospital and we got hit with another $5,000 deductible. I was in the hole $10,000 within a few weeks.”

Magaldi speaks about the way musicians are revered in other parts of the world, particularly Europe. “A lot of great young players who are college students at the various universities are absolutely treated with great respect,” he says. “Every public place has a statue of a great musician. They respect and love American jazz musicians over there, while in our own country we’re often treated as second-class citizens when we put the word ‘musician’ on an application.”

Although the changing political climate brings hope for many, a solution to the problem won’t be quick or easy, even if it’s addressed on a national scale. When asked in an interview with Michael Moore how Britain’s system came about, former member of Parliament and Labor leader Tony Benn says Britain suffered through rampant unemployment in the early 1930s, then saw rapid improvement during World War II. “We thought ‘If we have full employment by killing Germans, we could have employment by building hospitals, building schools, recruiting nurses and teachers,’” he said. “If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.”

Interested in this issue? Visit myspace.com/healthymusicsa or contact Bett Butler at bett@mandalamusic.com.

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