Where Are Artists on Health Care Reform?

By Rob Patterson

Writing this in the midst of the health care wrangle — one on which those of us who support universal coverage (and in my own case as a self-employed writer growing long in the tooth need) — I find myself wondering: Where is the popular music community? Then again, on a larger scale I also wonder as wrong-minded right wingers disrupt town hall meetings and take to the streets spouting all sorts of fictional, paranoid and even downright hateful blather, where are the leftists, liberals and progressives who supported Barack Obama as a candidate at least amenable to our politics during the election?

It seems like now that he’s in office and there is a Democratic majority in Congress (not that it seems to have done much good on this issue), they’ve decided it’s naptime when those of us who wish to see genuine change in a current system in which genuine health and true care seem like a joke should have also been at the town halls and marching on Washington with at least as much fervency and in the greater potential numbers we could turn out to make our case as loudly as the opposition. As for musical creators, who pitched in against the Bush wars and in support of Obama, this would have been an ideal occasion to show an ongoing support for a liberal if not progressive agenda.

Admittedly, health care isn’t as “sexy” nor as easy a subject for poetic address as, say, civil rights in the past or more recently opposing the Iraq war or supporting a left-leaning (it seems and I hope not seemed) black man speaking of the need for change we can believe in. But the irony here is that professional recording and performing musicians are a constituency for whom health care reform is a much-needed goal. Just because an artist records for a large entertainment corporation like Sony or Universal doesn’t mean they get access to the health care plan that those companies offer their employees. And then all the independent recording acts and touring bands as well as their road crews and the support staff in the venues where they perform are just as much if not even more in need of affordable health care. The music community is an effective tool for bringing attention to issues and rallying citizens to events. But from all I’ve seen during this struggle to make this nation a more humane, fair and caring society on the issue of health care, the silence from the musicians has been deafening.

On the other hand, the music community does offer its examples of at least some initiatives within it that do point to alternatives now that the notions of genuine full coverage and truly affordable care and plans seem to be dead in the water. An example of two notable efforts can be found in the story of when my friend and noted singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo wound up in the hospital in critical condition from the effects of Hepatitis C a few years ago.

The initial funds to help keep him alive and his family cared for when his illness prevented him from making a living were from two organizations, One is the MusiCares program run by the Recording Academy (NARAS, the organization behind the Grammy Awards). Another is the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which began when singer-songwriter Victoria Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and became an ongoing entity whose mission is to provide “financial assistance to career musicians who are facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.”

In Austin, Texas, where I live, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians is a nonprofit group that provides low-cost primary health, basic dental care and mental health counseling to uninsured working musicians. An irony found in HAAM is that one of the local figures who was instrumental in getting it started is a woman who has worked in banking and is a member of a prominent Texas Republican political family (and I hazard a guess may be a Republican herself), just so you know that not all those sorts of people are without such noble social concerns.

Such organizations are hardly the solution to the critical issue of ongoing health services at an affordable cost for all, but at least point to what can and must be done until, if ever, true universal care makes it past the thicket of ugly rhetoric, public ignorance, human greed and capitalist exploitation to bring this nation to parity on national health with most other civilized nations. And the question also still remains: Why haven’t musicians with commercial power both large and small gotten behind this issue with their creativity and ability to draw crowds and motivate their fans and listeners? Real activism, after all, is an everyday, lifelong effort,

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009


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