In A Precarious Age, Music Health Alliance Removes Obstacles To Care For Music Pros

Rodney Crowell, Sonny Curtis, Peter Cooper, Rosanne Cash, Frank Rogers and Steve Wariner join Music Health Alliance for the 3rd annual “The First And The Worst” at Nashville’s City Winery. Photo by Angela Talley

Imagine how scary it is to be told, “You need a liver transplant.”

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Now imagine being told you can’t even get on the transplant list without health insurance. If you’re among the large percentage of music professionals who lack insurance even with the Affordable Care Act still in place, you’d likely find yourself in a panic, trying to tally your relatives’ net worth and praying they’ll refinance their homes to save you.

Before 2013, a musician or industry representative in that boat might have been out of luck. But since 2013, the Nashville-based Music Health Alliance has been helping music pros leap health-care obstacles minor and major — whether that means guiding clients through Affordable Care Act applications, negotiating bill reductions, helping to arrange medical care or tapping financial assistance organizations. The nonprofit MHA navigates the system on behalf of anyone in need — and not just those with low incomes.

“About 10 to 15 percent of our clients are very successful financially in the music industry, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how much money you have when you have a health crisis and you need help,” says founder and executive director Tatum Hauck Allsep. “We take out all the barriers and humanize a system that is one of the most basic, I believe, fundamental rights of being a human being, and that is access to health care.

“Essentially,” she adds, “we’re translators — or as Rodney Crowell calls us, the Red Cross of the music business.”

Since its founding, MHA has helped a reported 5,200 clients and provided over $15.5 million worth of resources and support.

Nashville resident Allsep started the organization because of her own experiences with the system. She was managing Austin band the Derailers when she landed in a hospital, trying to fight off premature labor and save her unborn twins. She remained there for six weeks; her twins stayed for another nine. Despite insurance “with a maternity rider,” she received a $500,000 bill — and discovered her situation was hardly unique. Several years later, the Vanderbilt University alumna became the university medical center’s music community liaison; her focus became getting more members of that community insured.

It’s a community that, too often, winds up holding benefits to help one another cover the costs of fighting an illness, from giant bills to lost income. Even with the ACA, many can’t afford treatment because of high deductibles or expenses. Or they find themselves being refused care for various reasons, like the band manager in need of a double hip replacement who was told she had to pay a deposit in advance — illegally, it turns out. The hospital knew fans had set up a account on the manager’s behalf, but she had no access to it. 

“She would have gladly used that to help pay some of that bill, but they were holding it over her head like ransom, and that’s completely against the law,” Allsep says, adding, “Understanding the laws so fully as they relate to our industry has become one of our greatest assets as advocates.”

While MHA doesn’t offer major financial help directly, it does dole out grants of up to $500 to help with costs not otherwise covered, such as a new bed for a convalescent. The six-person staff also serves as a clearinghouse of sorts, often routing clients to other organizations such as the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation, the Blues Foundation’s HART Fund, Sweet Relief and regional nonprofits like Austin’s Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and SIMS Foundation, several of which provide financial assistance or access to free or low-cost services.

“We dig until we find a solution. And there’s almost always ways to find a solution,” Allsep says. “Every story’s different; no one’s the same. But no one has time to investigate. And we do that. We take it to the next level.”

In the transplant case, they discovered the patient actually had health insurance at a job she’d started just before she got sick, but she hadn’t been aware it had kicked in. That month of coverage with her former employer opened a special enrollment window that allowed her to get an ACA policy. The hospital simply accepted her “no” answer to the insurance question and never checked further.

As for the fate of Obamacare, Allsep doesn’t sound worried. MHA already has established relationships with health care providers around the country “who practice for the right reasons [and] are gonna be there.” Localized programs and premium assistance funds will grow, she says.

They might be financed through fundraisers like MHA’s annual “The First and the Worst” event, which features renowned songwriters from Rosanne Cash to Garth Brooks performing their early attempts and beloved hits. This year, it raised $95,000 for salaries and overhead costs.

Eventually, MHA hopes to address the pressing issue of long-term care for music professionals.

“We will have a solution,” Allsep promises. “I don’t know when that’ll be yet, but there are enough good people in our industry and the health-care industry, that collaboratively, we will build something that will work. Because music’s too important.”

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