There are many many reasons to reform the American health care system. Our current employer-based, profit-driven system is bad for doctors, patients, and society as a whole. It is wasteful, ineffective, and needlessly complicated. If President Obama’s health care reform plan succeeds in making its way through Congress, it could greatly improve the lives of millions of Americans and it might save our country from bankruptcy. In addition to all this, health care reform would also be a major boon to the arts.
Our current health care system is built to suit the gray flannel wearing company man of the mid-twentieth century. It worked rather well in a society in which one worked for the same corporation or union for fifty years, then retired with a pension. But in today’s outsourced, freelanced, knowledge-based economy, the system is taking on water. Almost 50 million Americans do not have health insurance and 25 million more are underinsured. Nearly half of all personal bankruptcies in this country are due to medical expenses. And, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 28% of Americans indicated they were currently having a serious problem paying for health care or health insurance.
The health care situation for artists is especially dismal. Except for those who have day jobs and those employed by universities, most artists buy their own health insurance on the free market (e.g. without the bargaining power of a big company or organization). Artists’ organizations such as PEN America and the Screen Actors Guild provide insurance to their members at a reduced cost. Most of these organizations, however, require their members to be established in the field. And few of them offer health insurance outside of New York and California (because, of course, no artists live outside of New York and California). When asked about some of the problems of being a novelist in this particular time, Michael Chabon said:
The problems you have as a novelist tend to have to do with making a living and trying to find ways to supplement the income you get from writing novels. For a lot of writers, that involves teaching. In my case, so far, I’ve been able to get by working in Hollywood with this TV stuff I’ve been doing. And it’s very important, because my wife is a writer, too, and we don’t have health insurance through any employer. Therefore, our health insurance comes through the screenwriter’s guild, so I can only ensure my family’s health by working in Hollywood. In a way, that’s a problem for me, because I’d much prefer to be writing novels all the time.
When Chabon, one of the most popular and respected literary writers of our day (who earned a reported seven-figure advance for his latest novel) has to scramble for health insurance, how can the rest of us hope to make ends meet? And that’s to say nothing of all the potentially great American poets and painters holed away in cubicles, too scared to break free of their day jobs. If President Obama’s health care reform gets through Congress intact, it would be a huge legislative achievement. It would also be a major booster shot for individual artists and for the arts world as a whole.