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Equity Expects Health-Cost Rise

The Actors' Equity Association health plan will apparently see "substantial" cost increases this year, according to the union's report to its members and the acting community at large. While it appears too early to determine what those cost increases might be—or how the plan's trustees will respond—any hike in expenses can only put more pressure on the health fund, which has struggled mightily in the past few years.

Equity has attempted to ease that plight by convincing producers to increase their payments into the fund, officially called the Equity-League Health Fund. The fund is governed by an independent board of trustees—composed of union members and producers—who have attempted to stanch the fund's ongoing depletion by changing the health plan's structure and tightening its eligibility rules.

At a recent meeting of the International Federation of Actors in Toronto, Alan Eisenberg, Equity's executive director, spoke generally about the projected cost increases. The union's online report on the May gathering mentions only that Eisenberg "commented that Equity's health plan is facing substantial cost increases." Maria Somma, the union's press liaison, said on July 11, "There's been double-digit inflation in the medical care industry in the last 10 years. We anticipate increases based on past patterns." Those patterns include increased charges by doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, drug companies, and insurers, along with the expanding demand for medical and pharmaceutical services.

This spring, benefits consultants from the Segal Company told Equity's national council that the health fund's trustees were reviewing "various strategies to control costs, including implementing new types of plans, increasing cost sharing, and more restrictive coverage," according to the union's report on the meeting.

Equity Health Plunge

In summer 2003, Patrick Quinn, Equity's president, sent two detailed letters to members analyzing the health plan's problems. He cited a $16 million deficit and explained that what he referred to as "drastic" changes would go into effect in October of that year in an effort to get the plan back on sound financial footing. Quinn, a health plan trustee, wrote to members, "The actor trustees are just like you, and if the eligibility increases, or the benefits decrease, we get slammed with the same crap that you do."

Those major changes occurred that fall, including new eligibility rules and the transfer of the plan's non-HMO hospital, medical, and prescription drug benefit from Blue Cross and Union Labor Life/Beech Street to CIGNA. Quinn said the switch in insurance providers would save the health fund $2 million.

The tougher eligibility rules saw the number of covered Equity members drop 25 percent, from 10,000 to 7,500, Somma said on July 11.

At the spring national council meeting, the benefits consultants noted that the changes to the health plan—along with increased producer contributions obtained by Equity through contract negotiations—"have slowed the depletion of the [Health] Fund assets, which held steady at $40.9 million (unaudited) for the seven-month period ending Dec. 31, 2004." By 2003, when Quinn wrote to members about the plan's troubles, the fund's assets had fallen from $90 million to $49.8 million.

The health-plan dilemma continues for Equity as the union, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists conclude a survey of their members designed to better understand their health-care circumstances and needs. The entertainment industry unions, like other labor organizations and corporations nationwide, are facing a persistent fight with escalating health-care costs. The deadline for completing the online survey is July 18.

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