While the nation debates health care solutions, local musicians are in danger of losing the foundation that is keeping them mentally and physically healthy and, in some cases, alive. Founded in 1998, New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic (NOMC) is an innovative, not-for-profit, occupational medicine and wellness partnership offering affordable, comprehensive health care to local musicians and their families.
Due to the loss of a government-funded grant and a lack of community support, musicians and tradition bearers like the Mardi Gras Indians risk losing viable health care options. With incomes that in some cases float near the poverty line (between $12,000 and $15,000, according to a recent Sweet Home New Orleans study), many culture bearers rely on the clinic to sustain their health.
Some challenges existed pre- Katrina, but increased rents and higher costs of living make the services the clinic provides crucial. NOMC helps clients manage diseases such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer and hepatitis C while working preventatively to help musicians fight hearing loss, carpal tunnel syndrome, mental health issues, performance anxiety and smoking.
NOMC president and CEO Bethany Bultman broadened the clinic’s mission after the storm to help displaced musicians persevere and make their way home to New Orleans. She and husband Johann recognized that NOMC was the only health care option available to them, noting that entire departments of the LSU health care system never returned to the city.
Three years ago, the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic became one of 11 recipients of federal funding to help uninsured citizens of New Orleans as part of the Primary Care Access and Stabilization Grant administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The allocation of more than $2 million over three years allowed NOMC to become the medical home for more than 1,600 musicians, tradition bearers and their families. Over 83 percent of them suffer from chronic conditions.
For cornet player Jamie Wight who suffered a heart attack living in Seattle post-Katrina, the clinic meant that he could come home and also that he’d have the means to sustain himself once he got here.
“I can’t afford health care on my salary,” he admits, “and couldn’t get it anyway with my ‘preexisting condition’. The costs of my medications alone would take every bit of the money I make performing.”
Wight visits the clinic every three months, where they keep him stocked with life-saving medications and regulate his blood pressure. “It’s a blessing to have them here,” Wight says. “I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”
For many, the clinic takes the fear out of the phrase “pre-existing condition.”
Musician Paul Pattan maintained his own insurance, but after a motorcycle accident left him an amputee, he found Blue Cross/ Blue Shield would do nothing to help him regain his quality of life. The clinic referred him to Dr. Kurtz-Burke at the Veterans Administration, who fitted him with a prosthetic and aided with the phantom sensations he experienced after losing his leg.
With assistance from a network of health care providers including LSU and Daughters of Charity, the clinic strives to sustain the health, history and dignity of musicians, but without aid from community leaders and the support of local music lovers, its existence is in jeopardy.
“As we begin the last year of this federal grant, reduced funding dictates that we must diminish our services even though the needs of our patients are increasing” Bultman says.
“We have less than $500,000 to cover all medical costs for our patients for the next 14 months. Consider that each hand surgery performed on a musician costs us $4,000, and we have huge chemo bills for several patients.”
NOMC has already been forced to relinquish their mental health services, which Bultman believes to have had a big impact post-Katrina. “The idea that older musicians or Mardi Gras Indians would ever admit to needing therapy was unheard of before the storm,” she says. “Because of the services of the fully functioning and willing Department of Psychiatry at Tulane, they no longer fear therapy is going to take away their creative edge. Instead, they’ve realized these services make life easier.”
Bultman fears for the musicians if a change doesn’t come.
“We must make a leap of faith that local banks, businesses and private foundations are going to begin viewing our local musicians as a natural resource that must be protected. In the meantime, our board and staff are expanding our network of pro bono providers and are writing grants night and day. All we ask from musicians is that they come in to the NOMC for check-ups, take their medications and stay healthy.”