Programs Help Independent Artists Access Health Care

Updated at 10:50 a.m.

When Corynn Stoltenberg, then 31, found out she was at high risk for cancer at a health fair in Minnesota, she hadn’t been to the doctor in 10 years.

As a dancer and theater artist who supported herself by working at coffee shops and cleaning houses, she often was without health insurance or a steady income. Then Stoltenberg’s friends told her about Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul-based program that offers low-cost health care and other resources to freelance artists.

The timing was essential, she said. Stoltenberg’s pelvic exam, one of the free screenings offered at the event, revealed abnormal cells that could have led to cervical cancer if left unchecked.

“Artists are entrepreneurs, but they haven’t always been taught the business side of making a living,” said Nikki Hunt, a spokeswoman for Springboard for the Arts. “And health care is one of the biggest barriers.”

Freelance artists are part of the estimated 15 million people who are currently self-employed, according to a U.S. Department of Labor 2012 estimate. They make up 42 percent of the membership at the Freelancers Union, a fast-growing national organization that provides insurance and benefits for its more than 200,000 members.

In 2014, the union will also offer three consumer-operated and oriented plans (co-ops) in New York, New Jersey and Oregon, using funding from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that was authorized in the health law.

Programs like Springboard and the Freelancers’ Union co-ops help a community that Hunt said is often underinsured because many artists have low incomes — between $12,500 and about $25,000 — especially when they are not yet established.  But that doesn’t always qualify them for government programs like Medicaid, which has varying income and eligibility requirements depending on the state.

Springboard has served 100,000 artists since 1992. It’s Artists’ Access to Healthcare program, which has helped about 5,000 artists in the last five years, partners with community clinics to provide vouchers to access free or low-cost health services, which include dental, medical and mental health care. The organization also holds health fairs, workshops and resources in other regions or cities who want to replicate the program.

“Without programs that sort of put it out there and promote health, we don’t always know where to look,” said Stoltenberg, who is now pursuing a psychology degree at Smith College. She said that before Springboard she had tried to apply for a government health plan but was daunted by the documentation she needed to prove her eligibility.

But she is confident that programs that help artists have a larger reach than their membership.

“When you support artists, you feed the entire community,” she said. “We really need creativity to thrive.”