For many actors, getting and keeping health insurance is an ongoing struggle. Though they might qualify for union benefits one year, members may lose them the next because of inconsistent earnings. Sometimes exorbitant premiums prevent actors from buying insurance altogether — not an uncommon scenario even outside the entertainment industry.
According to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau study, 46.8 million Americans don't have health insurance, and a January 2007 article in the Chicago Tribune reported health insurance premiums rose 73 percent between 2000 and 2005, while workers' aggregate incomes increased by only 15 percent.
Though the talent unions alone can't tackle this growing coverage problem, the Screen Actors Guild Healthcare Safetynet Committee, created to explore new ways and means to cover uninsured and underinsured union members, has taken several actions to address the issue — including hosting an annual free health fair for all union members and their dependents. This year's fair will take place May 2 at the Guild's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.
For the fifth year in a row, the Guild's health fair will provide services such as free screening for diabetes, glaucoma, skin cancer, asthma, lung volume, and blood pressure, and conduct free foot and eye exams and body fat analysis. Attendees can indulge in free massages, get referrals for pap smears and prostate exams, and attend seminars on nutrition and staying healthy. Nearly 60 doctors and health-care professionals across the city will provide their services free of charge. Aside from offering screenings and referrals, attendees can also pick up a copy of the Safetynet Handbook. "The resource handbook is a list of accredited free clinics; some are low cost and free," said ReneĂŠ Aubry, national chair of the committee and member of the Guild's board of directors.
Since founding the Safetynet Committee in 1992, Aubry has watched the health insurance problem get worse for actors, she said. Aside from the rising cost of health care, many producers have taken jobs out of town to save money. When there's less work in Los Angeles for actors, they book fewer gigs and earn less money. "Runaway production is a really big problem. This has caused many of our actors to fall off the insurance plan," Aubry said. To qualify for the Guild's minimal insurance plan, actors must earn at least $13,790 on union jobs annually or have at least 74 annual days of employment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average SAG member earns less than $5,000 per year from acting.
Epidemiologist and actor Dr. Anne Seifert, who helped Aubry found the committee, said she will discuss healthy lifestyle changes and weight control at the fair. "It's my pleasure to be able to do what I can for all actors," said Seifert, who at one time found herself without health insurance. "It's tough. It's very difficult because you put stuff off that you should do."
Podiatrist Dr. Richard Cooper, who has been donating his services to help actors for years, said that at past health fairs his free foot screenings have attracted steady lines of performers all day long. "A lot of patients in the industry who are on their feet working long hours in a studio are working on hard floors," Cooper said. "They'll come in with arch pain or heel pain." He said this kind of foot fatigue can be solved with orthotics — an easy solution, but one that actors usually know about only if they take action and visit a doctor. "If they've [been] lax about dealing with their [health] problems, their problems get worse, and then it's going to interrupt their work schedule," Cooper said.
But given the cost of health insurance and medical visits without coverage, many actors feel they have no alternative but to be lax about their health needs. To address the ongoing health crisis, California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl proposed S.B. 840, a universal health-care bill for Californians. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in September 2006 and proposed his own health plan in January 2007. Kuehl plans to reintroduce S.B. 840 this year. Congressmen John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have proposed the United States National Health Insurance Act, H.R. 676, "Expanded & Improved Medicare for All," the single-payer universal health-care bill that would cover all United States citizens and be funded by repealing President George Bush's tax cuts and imposing a 5 percent health tax on the top 5 percent of income earners.
With the future of health care still up in the air, eligible actors can only gain from attending a free health-services fair. "[The health fair is] a wonderful opportunity for actors to get some basic screenings done," Seifert said. "If anybody has a question about their health or wants to know where they might go to get something resolved if they have a health issue, it would be a good thing to attend."
The Screen Actors Guild Health Fair is May 2 and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the James Cagney Room at SAG National Headquarters, 5757 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Members of all talent unions are eligible to attend. For more information on single-payer health-care plans, visit the California Nurses Association at www.calnurses.org/healthcare.