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A few minor items to add to a clamor

By Anselm Berrigan

I had hoped to get a couple more entries up by now, but it’s a particularly cunning germ season in our abode at the moment and I am in fact trying to dash this off before taking my daughter to see her doc so we might stem the tide of phlegm soon enough. So, Marina, I do plan to take up your questions this weekend, as I love thinking about abandoning the left margin. But for the moment I have a couple of notes on health care to add, for what it’s worth, to the convoluted, dismaying and occasionally promising debate on health care reform. I’d use the term absurd in that previous sentence, but too much of that health reform yap is an insult to absurdity.

At any rate, during the four years I directed the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church I had to work up an annual budget every spring to present to the Project’s Board of Directors. Each year the health care number for our three full-time employees was guaranteed to go up and the only matter to figure out was the size of each increase. While I never openly discussed this with anyone, each year I also pondered the question of whether or not the Project would have to be reduced to a two-person staff and a slew of volunteers and interns. Ultimately it was not an operable idea – the director of the Poetry Project already takes on the duties of fund-raising, grant writing, curating, hiring, managing the office, acting as liaison to the public, and avoiding as much as humanly possible the dreaded all-encompassing hipster-aesthete negativity on all matters po-contemporary so as to at least want to be generally open to anything – and so taking on further duties or shifting them over to the program coordinator was a pathway to rapid dissolution.

But the cost of health care was such a ridiculously intractable figure for this small arts organization that some manner of dissolution had to be analyzed, at least for a few days (and it might be useful to know that St. Mark’s Church is the Project’s landlord, so rent costs are high, getting higher, and possibly on the verge of becoming existentially problematic for the Project; in short, the place works hard to get by and do what it does). In this respect the problem of employee health coverage for the folks running small businesses seems to somewhat overlap with the same problem for small arts organizations, at least among those under either category that offer benefits. It’s painful to pay for health care, but cutting it would be more painful. Giving up health care coverage was not an option anyway: the Board wouldn’t have it, I didn’t want to end it, and the jobs would be practically impossible to fill without it given their not-terribly-high salaries.

I don’t know the current figure for health care under the Project’s plan (we looked around for better plans each year, but there wasn’t a lot of ground to give: a reduction in benefits would barely cut into cost while taking away useful options), but by the time I left the job in 2007 the annual figure was creeping up on 8-10 percent of our annual budget. Most of the Project’s funding comes from membership, admissions, donations, and some fund-raising. Public grants amounted, at the time, to less than twenty percent of annual income (i.e.: in my last year there the Project’s NEA funding equaled a little less than half of our health care bill). Another way of looking at it is this: if the amount we put out for health care was simply cut in half, we could have paid every feature reader (about 130-150 per year) a little more money….enough to pay a bill, or help cover travel expenses for out-of-town readers, or pick up some supplies, etc. Nothing major, but practical assistance. A little bit of money still means a lot to most people, I think, when it comes to practical matters (that shouldn’t have to be said, but somehow in this culture one has to continually justify one’s lack of cash).

Now on the one hand the above details point to a degree of self-sufficiency and are not meant to be taken as a litany of complaints. The reality was doable, it just seemed like it could have been adjusted (reformed) to be a little easier all around without a lot of hand-wringing (unless you’re an insurance company, I suppose, or a reinsurance company). But the longer-term reality is not so doable. An arts organization like the Poetry Project can’t simply jack up prices of admission and/or membership and expect its audiences and immediate community to continue contributing at a similar rate when holes are being burned in their pockets as well. Eventually, if costs increase at the same rate, given everything else, some kind of hard restructuring will have to take place. I suspect many organizations and businesses face the same sets of questions on a regular basis, and it’s impossible to tell right now if the legislation being hacked away at in the Senate will do much by them. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Oh, then there’s my mom. When my stepfather died in 2000 we (mom, my brother and I) were very quickly and constantly asked if she was moving back from France to the United States. Such questions were natural and well-meaning, if occasionally insensitive to the real complexities of a life. But had she even wanted to come back it was out of the question. She was in the French health care system. When a serious health scare emerged on her end in 2003 that required many months of treatment, that system treated her very well and largely without question. She has been able to and can currently live, mostly, off of her work (in combination with relatively low overhead). To move back to the States would entail getting some kind of heavy duty job in order to afford health insurance, and would thereby eliminate a great deal of time spent on her work. That one was not hard to figure out, and it remains so. New York City is for suckers, like me, anyway.

Note: I finished this before leaving, but couldn’t post it until we got back, for those of you who might be keeping time score.

Comments (5)

  • On December 19, 2009 at 12:23 pm Joseph P. wrote:

    There are so many scare stories out there it’s so nice to read a practical, straightforward take on how this affects an arts community. Is there anyone from Nebraska reading? Can you call your senator?

  • On December 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm Jill wrote:

    No need to call, Joseph. Looks like they got it together for sixty! Good news for the Poetry Project (for now).

  • On December 19, 2009 at 6:58 pm john wrote:

    Does anybody know why businesses haven’t demanded nationalized health care? It baffles me. It increases the cost of doing business by . . . how much? it must be large . . . compared to companies in other industrialized countries.

    Anselm, has your mother thought about moving back to the U.S. when she becomes eligible for Medicare? (Which she should next year, right?)

  • On December 21, 2009 at 11:23 am Anselm wrote:

    She doesn’t ever know exactly what she’s going to do, but no, I don’t think so. And anyway, she’s been in Paris longer than she had previously lived in New York…..health care matters aside, Paris is home.

  • On January 5, 2010 at 7:30 pm Josh Ingram wrote:

    No worries people, a government-run system is on the way.

    The private insurance industry is so short-sighted focusing on satisfying the stockholders every quarter that, in 5 or how many ever years, the cost of healthcares rising cost will put such a premium on their services that they won’t even be on the market anymore. They will effectively put themselves right out of business!

    Reference: http://trueslant.com/rickungar/2009/09/20/the-inevitability-of-an-american-single-payer-health-system/

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 18th, 2009 by Anselm Berrigan.