Facing enormous financial strain because of the shutdown of the theater industry, the health insurance fund that covers thousands of stage actors is making it more difficult for them to qualify for coverage.
Currently, professional actors and stage managers have to work 11 weeks to qualify for six months of coverage. But starting Jan. 1, they will have to work 16 weeks to qualify for a similar level of coverage.
Nonprofit and commercial theater producers contribute to the health fund when they employ unionized actors and stage managers, but because theaters have been closed since March, those contributions — which make up 88 percent of the fund’s revenue — have largely ceased.
“The fact that we have no contributed income is something no one could have foreseen,” said Christopher Brockmeyer, a Broadway League executive who co-chairs the fund’s board of trustees, which is evenly divided between representatives of the Actors’ Equity union and producers. “We really put together the only viable option to cover as many people as possible with meaningful benefits under these totally unprecedented circumstances.”
Brockmeyer and his co-chair, Madeleine Fallon, said the fund, which currently provides insurance coverage for about 6,700 Equity members, is facing its biggest financial challenge since the height of the AIDS crisis. At that time, the challenge was high expenses for the fund; this time, it is low revenues.
“Everybody is out of work, everybody is panicked, everybody has lost income and can’t make their art, and on top of that their health fund is in crisis,” said Fallon, who leads the union bloc on the board. “It’s been an emotionally difficult journey, but we hope our members will understand that we did find the plan that gives us our best chance to rebuild.”
Under the new system, those who work at least 12 weeks can qualify for lower-tiered plans with higher co-payments and more restrictions.
Actors’ Equity, which appoints half of the fund’s trustees, but is otherwise an independent organization, opposes the changes.
“We all understand that there is no escaping the devastating loss of months of employer contributions nationwide, and no alternative aside from making adjustments to the plan,” the union’s president, Kate Shindle, said in a statement. “But I believe that the fund had both the obligation and the financial reserves to take the time to make better choices.”
Shindle said the union had asked its members on the fund’s board of trustees not to support the changes until they conducted a study about the potential impact on union members of color, on pregnant union members, and on union members who live outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
A similar battle is unfolding in the film and television industry. Members of SAG-AFTRA, a union representing actors in those media, have loudly objected to changes in their health plan.
Stage actors are accustomed to working to earn health care benefits — some take jobs for the express purpose of getting weeks that will help qualify them for insurance. But many actors are not working at all, and can’t qualify no matter how many weeks are required.
As a result, some will be uninsured, while others can get coverage through Medicaid, COBRA or the Affordable Care Act. The Actors Fund is providing “health insurance counseling” to those facing a loss of coverage.
The Equity-League Health Fund, which is available to unionized actors and stage managers who work in commercial and nonprofit productions on Broadway, Off Broadway, and at regional theaters around the country, informed its beneficiaries of the changes on Thursday.
The fund began the pandemic with $120 million in reserves, and is now down to $91 million. Its administrators project that reserves will drop below $20 million by the middle of next year if its eligibility and benefits rules remain unchanged, and that it will be unable to pay benefits at all by the end of next year.