December 12th, 2009


A Few Things About Cartooning, Insurance, and Money

I'm posting this because of the recent Time video piece on insurance that featured an interview with cartoonist Julia Wertz, creator of Fart party. The interview can be seen here. Insurance is, as I'm sure you're all well aware of, a hot-button issue right now (as it has been in the past, and as it might be forever), and insurance has been a topic of much debate and consternation here in our household.

Sarah and I have spent most of our time together uninsured. Knowing we were dodging bullets and tempting fate, trusting to our then-good health, for well over a decade we did what we did and went where we went without carrying health insurance. Most other folks we knew that made comics were similarly uninsured, unless they had a day job with benefits, a spouse with benefits, or some other arrangement. Some fortunate folks come from well-to-do families and got a boost from that, there's a few trust fund cartoonists out there somewhere. You'd be surprised how many cartoonists have a good gig or a solid financial background in the household that provides benefits so they can continue to scratch out their comics and cartoons.

I'm not knocking that, don't get me wrong, bless 'em and all the best, it's what we should all have if possible. I'm just pointing something out here that a lot of young cartoonists don't think about: many NYC-area and big city area cartoonists who are not pounding out Marvel or DC material are insured and semi-stable because of factors that do not involve their cartooning. A husband or wife is teaching or has a good position in an office, and they are both covered, and said creator can continue to cartoon in the big town. They can maintain a Manhattan or Brooklyn or Hoboken apartment, a city lifestyle of some sort, and perhaps even start a family.

We had to finally bite the bullet and face facts when we decided to have a child, and we were able to swing insurance through the then-new Freelancer's Union. Last year the Freelancer's Union royally screwed everyone with a policy under them by giving them two weeks to remain with them -- with increases and policy changes -- or jump ship. Two weeks to parse the NYC insurance landscape, in a bad economy, was a god-damned nightmare, especially when other insurance companies started dumping New Yorker's home policies (and other policy shenanigans flared up, all at the same time, in our case. Eff you very much, Freelancer's Union). Fortunately, Sarah is a smart person and she got us on a new policy we can...well, grapple with and maintain. I won't get into that aspect of our current situation, that's ten posts of ten thousand angry and scared words about cost, performance, available physicians, red tape, paperwork, phone calls, anxiety, misinformation, bullshit, etc. And we know a lot of folks have it worse.

Anyway, back to the Time piece and Julia Wertz's situation. First off, it's a Time piece, so, there's been editing, and who knows what else might have been said. Going from the piece, Julia Wertz says she lives in Brooklyn, makes $1200 a month, her rent is $900, and she cannot find insurance. She has lupus, a disease that requires treatment. She has racked up at least three grand in medical bills, it seems likely that amount will increase, she also talks about fund raising efforts to help pay those bills. She discusses her predicament in her comics, and makes asides in a strip about how she she should probably move to Canada, and how she knows her decisions as a young person dealing with health issues and insurance are "so stupid yet so common".

The immediate snarky response, posted by several people on the Youtube thread, is that she should move the hell out of Brooklyn. Okay, yeah, maybe she should. I thought the same thing, to be perfectly honest, and it's not the first time I've heard about a cartoonist with a great address but a not-so-great income -- we know people and have friends who live on the financial edge, or have fallen off the edge, just so they can stay in New York City. I'm sure this occurs in San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, et al. Those places are expensive to live in, we all know that. The desire to remain in an expensive city and be a part of the arts community has drained the resources of many a cartoonist (musician, poet, writer, painter, et al), and it's hard to leave a place you love, or are at least are in like with, or see as a place of purpose. Get a roommate, there's another thought, of course. Get a day job. Be more pragmatic. You can say these things, but we all make our choices for whatever reasons. I'm still in the NYC area because I was born here, have spent 44 years here, have friends here, and bought a house here. Even so, I doubt we're staying much longer. It's an expensive town, and we're not kids, and it's not as fun or compelling a location as it used to be for a number of reasons. And insurance costs are a large part of this equation. Of course, everyone's mileage and situation varies, but you can be a semi-hermit drawing goofy pictures anywhere in the world, and it's not like NYC will disappear, the food will taste just as good on a visit back to Bloomberg's Upscale Mall of New York.

Anyway, let's forget that. If you're going to stay in NYC, or wherever, then the insurance issue needs to be grappled with more squarely.

Now, I'm no insurance expert, I'm a slug who shrivels up at the merest whiff of these sorts of things. Sarah's the brains of this outfit and has done all the Archie Goodwin-like legwork on this subject in regards to our situation, past and present. Wertz talks about making too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but she doesn't mention Family Health Plus or Healthy New York. You can make more than she does, more than you'd think, and qualify for these programs. Sarah has done the research on this, when we needed to know every possible option in front of us, as well as checking on a few things for friends of ours.

Anyway, here's some information Sarah forwarded to me from her computer that might help folks who are in NYC and are having trouble with this. Every state has similar programs, often with this three-tiered system:

- There are three levels of coverage, Medicaid; then if you make too much for that Family Health Plus; then if you make even more, Healthy NY.

- People should start here, and don't bother with the online qualification tests, you need to see an enroller (see below).

- Here's how to find enrollers for the whole state:

- They will check your documents against the rules and can enroll you in any of the three plans if you qualify. If you have a kid, there is also Child Health Plus which almost any kid under 19 can get into if you don't have coverage through a job.

Also, NY State has "groups of one", if you are legally self-employed you can buy into a group policy, no pre-existing conditions can be considered, that's what we're on, through Atlantis. They have to sell you a policy, it's easier to go through a broker, which is what Sarah did. This doesn't mean you can necessarily afford it, it's cheaper, but not "cheap". Some other states have this set-up, not many, though. And it can be a lot cheaper outside NY (like most everything else).

Obviously folks should check this out for themselves, and see what shakes out. I don't talk to a painter about life insurance as my prime source, why should you trust a cartoonist about an important life issue? Especially one like me? Exactly, you don't. You research a script, you reference a drawing, why not research your health and life? (easy for me to say, since my partner did all the work, but still...)

I'm not judging anyone, here I'm a Mistake King first-class and I have made a lot of dumb choices myself over the years. When I was in my 20's, I worked for Jim Hanley's Universe, I was a manager and I had coverage. I never used it. Even when I had a big piece of glass go through my hand, my drawing hand. And it repeatedly opened up and soaked my bedsheets with blood. Why? Because I was young, and I was invulnerable, and I wanted to see my girlfriend that night and not see a stupid doctor and the stupid hand will heal and I'm busy this week going out and screwing around and it only hurts a little now, what can happen. I went to the doctor a week too late, and my hand has hurt ever since. My drawing hand, So stupid, so common, as Julia Wertz wrote. Ms Wertz has lupus, however, and Sarah knows someone who died because of that malady, so, y'know...this shit's important to stay on top of and deal with. Not lecturing, honest. But what we do in our youth affects our later life, and later life is a long god-damned time, fingers crossed (I want to make stupid comics for a long time, and my hand is a disaster, and my neck went untreated for years...and my back...)

Last bit -- we don't like to discuss money, not only in comics (what's to discuss --? oh, ha ha) but in most professions. But we should be talking insurance, because comics is ass-backwards and we've never had unions or safety nets for freelancers. Those who "have" don't always seem to be the folks looking to help others, those who "haven't" are so busy trying to keep their shit together they can't find the time to help others or even help themselves. Sarah and I have discussed the need for a clearing house for information regarding health insurance options in the country for cartoonists (her idea), with contact information, and perhaps personal anecdotes and tips to help people out. A resource sort of like Tom Spurgeon's "local scene" list, only about trying to find coverage options and information specific to each area. Only, um, we can't even begin to compile something like that. It's a lot of work, and a lot of time, that we, like most folks, don't have. If I recall correctly Colleen Doran has written about insurance on her blog a number of time, I'm sure others have as well. This post is a small effort to contribute to the conversation, and perhaps some of you have some tips or concrete information you can post here in the comments section.

And all the best to Julia Wertz who is a funny cartoonist. I don't know her, I only know her work, and I feel weird mentioning her so often here, but the Time piece is what sparked this post off. Anyway, I wish her the best with her medical situation and her comics. If nothing else, folks who see the piece and like the comics should buy some. We all need some more funny comics in our lives.

Okay, that's it. I'm uncomfortable discussing "real life issues" instead of back issues, it's grown up and depressing and makes my stomach hurt. But I do hope this offers something of use to someone somewhere and I haven't goofed up any of the information anywhere.