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Health Insurance for Musicians? - An Innovative Austin Program

May 29, 2008
Austin enjoys the self-promoted but well-deserved reputation as live music capital of the world. In recent years, the city has decided to put its money where its mouth is to ensure that it stays that way. One of the most innovative and socially progressive ways it is doing that is by providing an insurance program for working musicians through HAAM, or Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

It's a unique concept. Besides New Orleans, Austin is the only city in the US to provide such comprehensive health care to its local musicians.

"This city loves those who make music for us all," according to Betty Dunkerley, Austin Mayor Pro Tem and HAAM board member. "What better way than Health Alliance for Austin Musicians is there to show our appreciation? HAAM makes members' lives better."

HAAM was created in 2005 as a result of a partnership between local hospitals and the SIMS foundation with support from the city and various Austin businesses. They recognized the tremendous need that existed in the community of musicians in the city for affordable health care. More than 8,000 working musicians live in Austin and most of them are uninsured. Rather than wait for the federal or state government to come up with a plan to help the millions of Americans who do not have health insurance, this community of musicians and their supporters decided to provide that help themselves.

Funding for the organization is provided by business and private donations and various grants. The HAAM benefit day every October mobilizes musicians, local businesses and city officials to raise money for the organization. In 2006 they raised more than $107,000, and more than $180,000 in 2007. Other events throughout the year, such as Austin music backer Nancy Coplin's BIG SIX-O birthday party recently, donate their proceeds to HAAM as well. Of course, interested supporters may also donate money at any time through the HAAM.

HAAM's 2007 annual report reveals nearly 4,900 medical, dental and mental health visits which earned a 94 percent approval rating from member-musicians. This success results from a one-of-a-kind collaboration among the Seton Family of Hospitals (clinic visits, prescriptions, hospital services and specialist referrals), St. David's Community Health Foundation Leadership (dental visits) and The SIMS Foundation (counseling, psychiatric and addiction-recovery sessions).

Membership in 2007 grew to 929 of which 65 percent were age 40 and younger, with 67 percent earning less than $15,000 a year. To receive the benefits from the program, members must live in Travis County and be able to prove that they earn money playing music. For many services, members must pay a small co-pay; some other services are provided for free.

The SIMS foundation was named after Austin musician Sims Ellison who lost a long battle with depression and committed suicide in 1995. His death shocked the Austin community and a group of family and friends decided to create the SIMS foundation to provide low-cost counseling, psychiatric and addiction recovery service to musicians who needed it. The foundation provided more than 2,300 such sessions in 2007.

In addition, through HAAM, more than 573 members made more than 1,300 clinic visits that same year and benefitted from more than 500 hospital services of various kinds as well. Many members also took advantage of the free dental services provided by the organization.

Almost all members are very positive about the work HAAM is doing and the services it provides. Guy Forsyth is an Austin musician who has built up quite a reputation throughout Texas.

"It makes me really happy for younger musicians who are coming up and for parents who may have a child who's very talented and it's scary to think of them becoming an artist. Because we see all these examples around us of people, who aren't part of a corporate structure are left behind in terms of health care and public support," Forsyth said.
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