Laddie John Dill has a special perspective on what it takes to survive as an artist. Forty-plus years ago, before he was world-renowned, he struggled for years to make ends meet. He wasn’t exactly starving, but there were lots of things he went without.
“It has always been a gamble becoming an artist,” Dill says. “There are obvious financial risks, but there are also health risks, not the least of which is just being uninsured.”
One day, when he was 28, he was working in his studio when the ladder he was on slipped in some oil. He fell to the concrete floor and broke his ankle in five places. When he arrived at a local emergency room, he explained to the hospital staff that he was uninsured. The staff took a look at his ankle, told him it wasn’t broken, and sent him home. By the time he got back to his studio, his ankle had turned black, so he tried another emergency room. There, too, the staff stalled as they tried to determine his insurance status.
“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to treat me unless they found someone who they knew could pay the bill,” Dill says. “Finally, I convinced them to send it to me. For the record, I paid it.”
(And let the record also reflect that hospitals today are a different breed. They are required by federal law to provide emergency care regardless of patients’ abilities to pay.)
Despite the ladder episode, Dill had, for an artist, relatively good luck negotiating the health care system. Beginning in 1972 and running up to 2000, he enjoyed health coverage through his employers’ group plans, first at UCLA and later at Santa Monica College. He even succeeded at negotiating a heart procedure at an out-of-network hospital.
But when he left his last faculty position, he quickly learned that, because he’d had a heart procedure, no health insurer would give him an individual policy. So on the advice of a sympathetic insurance broker, Dill and his three employees applied for, and got, a group policy.
“I was able to survive on my wits and some good advice,” he says. “But not everyone was as lucky. I know lots of artists who were uninsured for many years. Some still are.”
Venice Family Clinic created the Venice Art Walk in 1979 to raise funds to provide health care to the low-income uninsured, and a good number of the artists who helped get the event off the ground also were patients of the Clinic. The demographics and economics of Venice have changed quite a bit since then, but many artists are still uninsured.
“I’m 45 and I’ve been uninsured for about half my life,” says Bill Attaway, a painter and sculptor who has been in Venice for 29 years and in the Venice Art Walk & Auctions for the last ten. On the day of the event, he often celebrates the cause by arranging donations of food and live music for guests at his studio, because, he notes, “I’ve been a patient of Venice Family Clinic over the years.”
Few artists have either the employees or the means to set up group plans, so unless they can piggyback on a spouse’s group policy or they are sufficiently young and free of preexisting conditions to get an individual policy, their chances of getting health coverage are slim. In fact, some artists who participate in the Venice Art Walk & Auctions did not want to be named in this article because of the delicacy of their insurance situations. Health insurance itself is making them sick – with fear.
That fear isn’t felt only by artists. According to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly a quarter of Americans in 2008 took a new job or stayed in a job (rather than taking a new one) mainly because of health benefits. The same poll found that 7% had decided to marry so one spouse could have access to the other’s health benefits.
These dilemmas illustrate just how badly America needs the health care reform bill recently signed into law by President Obama. They also illustrate just how important free and community clinics will be to the implementation of reform.
Venice Family Clinic, for example, stands to grow, not shrink, because of the new law. It is estimated that between one third and one half of the Clinic’s uninsured patients will be covered by the expansion of Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California), and patients whose incomes are too high to qualify them for Medicaid hopefully will succeed in purchasing federally subsidized health coverage.
Many, if not nearly all, current patients will continue to visit Venice Family Clinic because 1) it is the medical home they know and trust, 2) it has the expertise to treat and manage conditions common to low-income populations, 3) it is close to where they live and/or work, and 4) there is a shortage of primary care providers nationwide, only a small fraction of whom accept Medicaid. Then there will be thousands of new patients who previously avoided all but the most urgent interactions with the health care system.
It is important to note, however, that the elements of the law will be phased in, and many won’t take effect until 2014. In the meantime, people will continue to get sick and injured, women will become pregnant, children will need physicals and immunizations for school.
Plus, once all the elements of the reform law are implemented, some 16 million Americans will remain uninsured. Currently, the need for health care among the uninsured already greatly exceeds Venice Family Clinic’s capacity; reform offers some hope that, with continued private support, the Clinic can actually, finally, reach all of those in need in its community.
Of course, all of this assumes the various forces opposed to reform will not succeed in repealing the law. Still, it’s a great start, one that all of Venice Family Clinic’s supporters should be happy with – even if they are already covered. Laddie John Dill is one of those. He recently qualified for Medicare.
“When I was young, underwriters didn’t want me and my lifestyle,” Dill says, expressing some relief. “Now I’m a model citizen.”
Indeed, he frequently donates use of his studio to Venice Family Clinic for parties leading up to the Venice Art Walk & Auctions. He writes letters to fellow Venice artists, asking them to join him in donating their work to the 400-piece silent art auction. And, like most of the participating artists, he donates a portion of the sales made at his studio on the day of the event.
“I have some people who only buy art that day,” he says. “Sometimes, I just have them make out their checks to Venice Family Clinic.”
This story appeared in the March 2010 issue of Short Story. Click here to view the entire e-newsletter.