Huffpost Arts
Daniel Grant Headshot

Art for Health Care

Posted: Updated:

For years, Brooklyn, New York artist Susan Tang enjoyed a good income as a children's book illustrator, painting the covers for the long-running Babysitters Club: Little Sister series, as well as other young-adult series, but her goal was to be a fine artist, painting murals. And, in 2001, she took the leap. "I'm eking out a living," she said. "It's been an adventure and a journey, but a precarious one." Part of what has made this career move so precarious is the loss of her health insurance, for which she no longer has the extra income to pay. She is not alone. According to a variety of surveys conducted over the past 20 years, between 15 and 30 percent of all (fine and performing) artists have no health insurance, in part because of the high cost of coverage plans and certain employment characteristics (self-employment, unemployment, temporary and part-time employment).

While the problem isn't new, one solution is. Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn, New York recently has initiated an Artist Access program, allowing artists to exchange cultural services for health care credits. The first artist to take part in the program, a painter, conducted a drawing class for patients in the hospital's pediatrics unit, while others have performed or led classes of other types. Artists accrue 40 credits for every hour they work, each credit equaling $1, which would be applied to health care services received at Woodhull, such as an appointment with a physician, laboratory tests, medical procedures and prescriptions.

Woodhull is one of 11 municipally-run hospitals in the five boroughs of New York City, all of which provide medical services to city residents, regardless of their ability to pay. The city's Health and Hospitals Corporation's Options program assists patients in applying for public health insurance (such as Medicaid, Family Health Plus, Child Health Plus, EPIC and ADAP) and, if they do not qualify for this coverage, will determine the fee they are asked to pay, taking into account income and family size. For example, the fee for a visit to a clinic or emergency room may be reduced to $15-60 and prescription drugs charges only $10.

The Artist Access program is the brainchild of Dr. Edward Fishkin, Woodhull's medical director, who noted the "influx of artists into the neighborhoods" of Brooklyn, "and many of these individuals have no form of health insurance. I thought, 'Let's make this a win-win situation, letting artists entertain for health care.'" The concept was fleshed out with Laura Colby, director of the Brooklyn-based performing arts booking agency Elsie Management who had met Dr. Fishkin last autumn at a training course offered by the New York Cycle Club. "Hospitals are not the sort of places people like to go to," she said. "Artists can only improve the environment."

She described artists as an "underserved population. There are a lot of people who haven't gone to an optometrist, or opened their mouths to a dentist, in 10 years." The credits that artists earn would be used for medical services in the future, not to repay current or past expenses. The Artist Access program is not a health insurance plan that could be used to pay for medical services elsewhere, but only applies to Woodhull. Artists are required to perform a service for patients, which will be valued at 40 credits per hour, and not simply donate a work of art, "which creates a problem of valuation that we didn't want to get into," Dr. Fishkin said. The only limitation on the program, he said, is the number of volunteers, acting as chaperones, which are available to the artists while in the hospital. (For the safety of the artists and the hospital itself, all artists working in this program must be accompanied by a chaperone.) Dr. Fishkin hopes, after the program has proven itself over time, that Artist Access may be expanded to the city's other 10 municipal hospitals. For a downloadable application to Woodhull Medical Center's Artist Access program, visit: www.nyfa.org/files_uploaded/health-care-application.pdf. To contact the program directly, call (877) 244-5600.

So far, more than a dozen visual and performing artists have earned health care credits at Woodhull, and Dr. Fishkin noted that more than 100 others have signed up to take part in this program, including Susan Tang, who offered to create a mural. Specifics on this mural - where it is sited, its content and size - would be worked out as the opportunity arises, but Tang doesn't want to wait too long. "I'm in good health now, but you never know," she said. "I'm not a kid anymore -- I'm a grandmother."

Artists in search of information on health insurance plans should visit the Web site of the Actors' Fund's Artist Health Insurance Resource Center (www.actorsfund.org/ahirc/), which lists coverage by state, since insurance is regulated by the individual states rather than by the federal government, although some plans operate in many states. The Seattle-based Artist Trust also is looking to develop a state-based health insurance plan for artists working in all disciplines. Information on the Washington Artists Health Insurance Project may be found at www.artisttrust.org.