After years of jumping around onstage playing bass for Washington, D.C. punk trio Ex Hex, 37-year-old Betsy Wright is dealing with the rarely spoken downside of being a high-energy working musician. The musician's chronic rheumatoid arthritis forces her to take an expensive drug called Enbrel to prevent her joints from fusing – she pays for it with health insurance purchased through the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans repeal Obamacare, she'll be one of numerous independent artists who, along with more than 20 million Americans, will abruptly lose their coverage.
"We were hoping to do some more touring in the fall, but I don't know how I'm going to be able to do that — I don't know how to get insurance without having a full-time job," Wright tells Rolling Stone. "I don't want to complain, because certainly everyone has to do that, but it's hard. Like most musicians, I'm piecing everything together by teaching lessons and doing gigs."
Although Republicans have ripped Obamacare as a disastrous form of taxing-the-rich socialism since it passed Congress in 2010, the act has given struggling Americans a lifeline for buying health insurance, often for the first time. Musicians have been an especially vulnerable segment of this group — just before the law took effect in 2013, the Future of Music Coalition estimated they were uninsured at a rate of almost three times more than the general population. Many, like Wright, previously patched together insurance plans through spouses (she is divorced) and occasional day jobs (she stopped working as a bookkeeper at a Charlottesville, Va., café when the ACA came along). Others never had insurance and simply did their best to avoid health catastrophes.
"Before, I was able to just fly blind because I was like, 'I just can't afford that and I just have to stay healthy and be lucky,'" says Julian Koster, 42, a Neutral Milk Hotel instrumentalist who did not buy health insurance until he signed up for a $200 monthly Obamacare plan. "I don't know if I could fly blind now. You don't get younger."
"This is taking things away from people who definitely need it."
For much of his life, Andrew Savage, the 30-year-old singer-guitarist for New York indie-rock band Parquet Courts, went without health insurance. The musician suffers from epilepsy and suffers two or three seizures a year, the most severe of which have resulted in head trauma. He quit his day job six years ago to tour with the band, which was just starting to take off, but that meant no insurance to pay for his daily medication. He spent years shuffling payments on credit cards; once, he openly wept when a pharmacist told him a generic drug was available for $40 instead of $400.
The ACA would have helped, but by the time it took effect in 2013, the members of Parquet Courts were big enough, like most successful bands, to form a Limited Liability Company and purchase group insurance. "We were worried that if we got Obamacare, there would be a lot of limitations — the bill, when it was first conceived, was very different from the one that made it through because so many things got taken away from Obama and his original vision of the plan," Savage says from his Brooklyn home. "Of all the sinister things promised by Donald Trump, this has got to be one of the most scoundrel-ish — this is taking things away from people who definitely need it."
Even musicians who haven't purchased insurance through the exchanges have benefited from Obamacare. Insurance companies can no longer raise rates for customers who have pre-existing conditions. That means sick people have an easier time than ever getting coverage.
Members of Drive-By Truckers, the veteran southern-rock band, run an LLC and share a group health-insurance plan. But 52-year-old Patterson Hood, one of the band's lead singers, says the central Obamacare provision that prevents insurance companies from raising rates due to members' pre-existing conditions has helped his family immeasurably. His wife and 12-year-old daughter have scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and his 7-year-old son has growth hormone deficiency that requires an expensive shot every day for the next decade.
"My son's shots are in the thousands per month. I mean, it's a lot of money. And we do not have it," he tells Rolling Stone just before a Conan appearance in Los Angeles. "We're paying $2,000 a month as it is just for the insurance. I'm lucky I'm gainfully employed — my band, we're not stars, but we're successful enough to where I can make ends met. But it terrifies me. It literally woke me up in the middle of the night last night."
During the election, Trump told reporters he would keep the provision about pre-existing conditions. But he would not promise to keep the mandate, requiring all Americans to buy a plan, that essentially allows health insurance companies to pay for it.
"It terrifies me. It literally woke me up in the middle of the night last night."
Republicans have yet to announce a replacement plan aside from Trump's recent tweet about "something terrific." Democrats have vowed to protect the centerpiece of President Obama's agenda for the past eight years — Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, has branded the Republicans' repeal efforts "Make America Sick Again" — but lack the votes to truly do anything about it. If Republicans repeal the entire ACA, as they've threatened repeatedly to do for years, they would allow insurance companies to resume raising rates for Americans with pre-existing conditions.
As Democrats prepare for a fight to maintain the ACA, indie musicians are gradually joining the cause. Kelley Deal of the Breeders and R. Ring recently met with outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell in Washington, D.C., and turned the encounter into a pro-Obamacare media opp.
Like Ex Hex's Wright, Deal went for years without health insurance, at one point buying insurance through her husband's plan until they divorced. Deal has hypothyroidism, which she found out through a routine checkup; today, she pays for meds and doctors through an ACA plan. "If that goes [away], then I don't know that I could get insurance," she says from her Dayton, Ohio, home. "I'm 55, I'm self-employed and I have a previous condition that requires medicine every single day."
The Washington-based Future of Music Coalition, which has been following the problem of musicians without healthcare for years, is encouraging those who haven't purchased an Obamacare plan to do so while open enrollment continues through the end of January. The organization advocates that musicians contribute to what Kevin Erickson, the group's national organizing director, calls a "sustained campaign of awareness and pressure and accountability."
Indie musicians are like self-employed artists and freelance writers, but they add the unique characteristic of touring the country, often playing dingy, germ-infested clubs in beat-up vans and greeting dozens of people they've never met. "When you have touring musicians traveling together in very close quarters, when one person gets sick, they all get sick. Or you're backstage and a fan gives somebody a hug, and they happen to be sick, then everybody in the band is sick," says Brian Ross, manager of Thievery Corporation, Blackalicious and others. "After the ACA passed, there were a lot of young touring musicians who began to realize that this previously unattainable insurance that no one had a chance to get was a real option."