Local Artists Struggle To Find Affordable Health Care

Houston is home to both the biggest medical center in the country and one its richest arts communities, but those groups don't always get along. For many local artists, finding affordable healthcare is a constant stressor. They struggle to find ways to cope, from working part-time jobs with benefits to going without health insurance altogether.

William Miller is using his studio in the Heights for some decidedly uncreative things. His health insurance runs out next month, and he has to figure out a way to make things work. He's HIV positive and borderline diabetic, which puts him in a high risk pool. This is the first time he's without a safety net.

He got laid off from his job as a graphic designer last year and now he pursues his art full time. He estimates he'd have to sell 9 paintings a month to pay for the level of care he has now.

"It's expensive, there's no other word for it, it's expensive. You know, they used to say well make sure that your rent and other expenses are like 25 percent of what you're bringing in. Well, you add healthcare to that and it's double, triple that."

He's thinking about getting a part-time job at Starbucks just for the benefits. But that would take him away from his studio, so he's looking for other options. He found Legacy, a community clinic in Montrose that's willing to treat him.

They're helping him apply for federal coverage under a grant for HIV positive patients. If that doesn't work out, they have a sliding scale fee structure for their uninsured clients.

Kimberley Paulus is with Legacy. She says their Montrose clinic serves many people in Houston's entertainment industry.

"The artist community is such an important part of Montrose and our culture here in Houston and an interesting component of that is oftentimes those people face difficult access to care. Many of our fine artists and musicians go insured or underinsured."

Legacy has been operating in Houston for 30 years, it played a key local role in the 80's AIDS crisis. Now they're a federally qualified health center. They provide preventative care, dental, pediatric — the works.

They say they're trying to combat the sick, starving artist stereotype. Legacy says the situation has gotten a bit better since The Affordable Care Act started kicking in. Young people can stay on their parent's insurance until they’re 26 and it's easier to get coverage from a spouse. But for artists like Miller who don't fall under those categories, it's tough.

"Medicine costs so much, appointments cost so much, blood work costs so much, so do you decide to spend the money on that or the rent for your studio? Do you spend it on materials so you can sell more art — there always seems to be that trade-off."

Freelancers in other cities have organized to buy health insurance as a group, but that's yet to happen in Houston. For the meantime, the people behind Houston's vibrant arts community are finding their own ways to get healthcare, even if that means staying uninsured.