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No exhibits, no insurance coverage: Broadway actors lose well being care if the shutdown drags on

Isabelle McCalla, Caitlin Kinnunen and the cast of "The Prom" perform during the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2019 in New York City.

Theo Wargo | Getty Images

A little over a year ago, Caitlin Kinnunen sat shoulder to shoulder with the biggest Broadway stars at Radio City Music Hall, listening to their name read as a Tony nominee for Best Actress in a Musical.

This spring, Kinnunen was unemployed as an actor after the Covid-19 pandemic forced professional theaters to close. The 29-year-old eventually packed up her New York apartment and drove across the country to return to her parents' home in Washington.

Now she faces a new threat: she will lose her health insurance.

Kinnunen and many professional stage actors earn their coverage by working a certain number of weeks each year. With Broadway and almost all theaters across the country going dark until May 30th, it has become impossible to find work that will enable them to qualify. As a result, thousands anticipate loss of health insurance. Kinnunen has the added difficulty of living with type 1 diabetes.

"How will I live? How will I afford to live? Should I just find a career that will provide me with health care so that I can continue the life I have built so far?" Kinnunen said in an interview with CNBC.

Kinnnunen said she could stay on her union-sponsored insurance until April. From this point on, she will be dismissed as there are no contracts to be signed.

According to its Actors' Equity union, its members amassed around 265,000 working weeks this year at the end of October 2019. This year, the number of work weeks has fallen by 65 percent to around 92,000 – including almost three months of normal work before stoppage.

The lack of work weeks is pushing between 200 and 300 union members off their health insurance every month, Actors' Equity told CNBC.

The reserves of the health insurance companies are falling

"If all contracts are dropped because no one can actually go into the physical rooms, no one can accumulate work weeks," said Kate Shindle, president of Actors' Equity, which represents both professional artists and stage managers. "So we have a lot of people who are very afraid of what will happen to their health care."

The closure has drained the coffers of the Equity-League Health Fund, an independent body managed separately from the union. 88 percent of the fund is financed by employers such as producers and theater owners. The remainder consists of investment income and premiums paid by the participants.

Manhattan's theater district after Broadway shows announced they would cancel performances due to the coronavirus outbreak in New York on March 12, 2020.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

However, employer contributions largely dried up when the theaters closed. The Health Fund expects its reserves to drop from $ 120 million before Covid to $ 30 million by the middle of next year if most of the theaters don't reopen.

In order to avoid that the reserves are completely used up, the health insurance company changed the threshold for the coverage of the members from January 1st. Instead of working 11 weeks for six weeks, members now have to work 12 weeks for a lower level of coverage and 16 weeks or more for the same coverage as before, but with higher deductibles, copays, and maximum expenses.

It was a move that the union itself criticized publicly.

"We all understand that there is no way out of the devastating loss of month-long employer contributions across the country and no alternative but adjustments to the plan," Shindle said in a statement when the changes were announced on October 1st. "But I believe that the fund had both an obligation and financial resources to take the time to make better decisions."

The options are running out

Those who have already lost coverage do multiple backups. Many are now qualifying for Medicaid because their income has come down low enough. Others choose COBRA, which allows them to stick to the same plan but in many cases pay between $ 1,000 and $ 3,000 out of pocket every month.

Some are switching to market plans through the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case attempting to overthrow Obamacare. However, some of the court's conservative judges appeared unwilling to crush the legislation.

Kinnunen plans to move to a marketplace plan if that is still possible by April. To do without health insurance, said Kinnunen, would be too expensive.

The cost of an out-of-pocket diabetic – insulin, glucometer test strips, a portable device to monitor their glucose levels, and other supplies – runs to over thousands of dollars a month, she said.

"If I didn't have insurance, my health care costs would be insurmountable," said Kinnunen. "It's not just, oh, I spend this money on things that make my life easier. No, I spend this money on things that really keep me alive."

Another option is on the table in Washington. Several U.S. Senators proposed the Workers Health Insurance Protection Act in September, which would allow workers unemployed or on leave due to the pandemic to gain access to subsidized COBRA coverage in order to maintain their health insurance.

Actors & # 39; Equity came out in support of the bill but it's pending amid deadlocked stimulus talks.

Despite being a Tony nominated actress, Kinnunen said uncertainty about health care has led her to leave the industry altogether. She is taking an online course at New York University to broaden her perspective.

But like so many in the industry, Kinnunen sees theater as a calling.

"We do it because we have a passion for it and it is important to us," she said. "So to ask, just do something else? It's not that easy. It hurts."

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