An American musician grapples with (lack of) health insurance

An American musician grapples with (lack of) health insurance


norman lebrecht

September 28, 2017

Zeneba Bowers, a violinist in the Nashville Symphony and the Alias chamber ensemble, posted this reflection today on how many US musicians cope with ill-health: they ignore it because they can’t afford to do anything else. Hers is a striking case history that we feel sure will resonate with many others. What can be done about it?

Read Zeneba:



Today I finally went to the doctor after having a cold for 11 days. Turns out I have bronchitis. (I’m fine, I’m not posting this for sympathy.)

For many years I lived with no health insurance. A small illness like this one would have had serious implications for me. I would have to miss gigs (with no paid sick days, so lots of lost money), and on top of that, pay for a doctor’s visit and medicine I could not afford.

The shame of having to go in to a doctor, without insurance, and ask line by line how much something would cost (with no consideration for my health, but only the dollar amount), was enough to keep me away from the doctor, in nearly every circumstance. I was not lazy or sponging off the government, I was a full-time student with 2 part time jobs. Trying to turn myself into a “maker”, as some would say today.

My grandfather was a doctor, and when I was absolutely desperate, I would call him and he would write me a scrip for antibiotics, when I had a UTI or strep throat. He was writing those scrips from MN, when I was in NY — this was surely illegal, but he took pity on me, as he knew I had no other option.

I used to call my health insurance plan the “Old Yeller” plan; meaning, just shoot me in the face if it gets too bad.

I remember when I got my first orchestra job, I went down to the office to meet everyone and pick up paperwork. One of the things I picked up was an insurance card. I literally cried when I got it, and kissed it. I was so happy, just to think that I could get basic, general care. I didn’t have any major pre-existing condition. Just typical ailments like the flu, or a cold. But the specter of a huge medical bill (which could be brought on by any small accident) loomed over me every day. It was something I worried about constantly. I think I could have gotten a lot more done in my studies if I weren’t panicking about this, seriously.

Today at the doctor they asked if they could take an Xray, to check my lungs for pneumonia. I thought about asking about the cost, and then I thought “You know, I just want to get better. If that’s what it takes I’ll just spend the money”.

Well that was not something I could have thought before, because I would never have been able to afford it. And while I am grateful that I can afford it now, there is nothing about me that makes me better or different than my neighbors or friends who can’t afford it.

We can do so much better in this country, and we should. Every other developed country does. Let’s join them.



  • Jon H says:

    Musicians aren’t alone in the fear of a huge medical bills. And the challenges early on of getting set up with a job and having coverage is something that will get you through the more jaded times later – there’s more appreciation for what you have with the memory of the way things used to be.

  • bratschegirl says:

    No, it’s not unique to musicians, of course, but a very significant percentage of musicians in the US are employees of smaller-budget and -season orchestras ( I have contracts with 3, and perform with many others as sub/extra in the course of a season) where the musicians are not full-time employees and are thus ineligible for employer-provided health insurance.

    I reject the idea that it’s a good thing for anyone to go through some period of not having medical insurance so they’ll appreciate it later on. Why on earth should anyone have any period of time in their life when they have to live in fear of either their finances, or their health, or both, being ruined because of a catastrophic diagnosis?

    We’ll never get this right in the US, I fear. We will continue to give huge private companies the right to decide who lives and who dies, who recovers fully and who does not. We will continue to have multiple separate bureaucracies handling payment of medical bills and all trying to slough off responsibility onto someone elsewhere in the network: one for “regular” medical services, another for injuries/illnesses caused on the job, another for injuries sustained if you’re in an auto accident, another if someone is injured on a homeowner’s or a business’ property. But at least we’ll be safe from the scourge of “socialized medicine.” /end rant

  • Thomasina says:

    Is she talking about the private clinic? I thought the public hospitals and doctors were free(as in Canada) in the US.

    • Bruce says:


      If you’re destitute, as in homeless, then they can’t turn you away; but if you’re scraping along, barely making the rent & utilities every month, they can (& will) come after you for the money — all the money.

  • Holly Golightly says:

    I wonder if the same woman has an expensive smart phone, eats out regularly and drives a flash car? Strange how so many of the owners/consumers of these things say they can’t afford health insurance.

    • MacroV says:

      Probably not, though that expensive smart phone is still the price of just 1-2 x-rays. And lo and behold! It appears we now know the true identity of “Holly Golightly:” Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Ah, I see the problem. The price of the smartphone would have paid some of the insurance and the insurance company would pay for the X-Rays. See; easy when you know how.

        And it’s good to blame people when they actually point out the obvious!! Nobody ever wants to hear the truth; why would they? This would mean the dreaded ‘personal responsibility’. LOL

        • klb says:

          Um, when you’re away from home gigging all the time, you won’t get jobs unless you have a cell phone where people can call you and text you about gigs. That’s how that works.

        • klb says:

          Also, if you’re out all day going from teaching to a gig etc., you’re probably going to eat in restaurants a lot because of all that time we don’t have to make 2-3 meals at home and carry them with us during the day.

    • Bruce says:

      Well, now that she’s a member of the Nashville Symphony, she most likely drives a BMW, lives in a gated community and has an iPhone 10. Because that’s how professional symphony musicians roll. Ask anyone.

      Never mind the’s writing about the period of time when she was a college student with 2 part-time jobs. She probably drove a BMW and had whatever-the-most-expensive-phone-on-the-planet was at the time then, too, because college students with part-time jobs are well known for that kind of consumption. In fact, if you see a flashy car on or near a college campus anywhere in the US, you can be pretty sure it belongs to a student with a part-time job. Wealthy families, being smarter with their money and more virtuous in general, give their students 25-year-old Japanese sedans with balding tires and head gasket problems. Everyone knows this.

    • Blair Tindall says:

      Zeneba DOES have health insurance! It is part of her symphony employer’s benefit package. So your comments are irrelevant. Did you read the post? And many gainfully employed people like her own smartphones and dine out.

    • Simone Byrom says:

      It might behoove you to actually read what Zenoba wrote before you make nasty comments. She was neither looking for sympathy nor complaining about her situation. She was simply stating the facts of her previous circumstances versus her current, and making an observation based on that. As she was previously a tenant in the building that I manage, I do, in fact, happen to know her. She does not drive a fancy car, doesn’t have an fancy phone (she doesn’t even have text), and generally eats at home, as she is a great cook. She also happens to have helped start (and continues to run) a non-profit that helps numerous charities. She works CONSTANTLY, and is kind, intelligent, and talented. Please, instead of using these forums for negativity, let’s ALL try to keep it to a civil, somewhat educated level. As someone who has worked full-time since I was 14 years old, and currently works two jobs but still can’t afford insurance, I couldn’t agree with your point more, Zen.

  • Zerbinetta says:

    Something like 70% of all the college-level teaching in the US is done by “adjunct” labor, who are not only scandalously underpaid, but have no job security and receive no benefits. Many have completed PhD’s but still have student loans to pay back. There’s something very wrong with this situation.

  • SoCal Dan says:

    Zeneba, there is no reason to fret about the lack of medical insurance. You can contact the insurance marketplace (at for help in obtaining free Medicaid coverage (if you qualify) or perhaps an individual medical insurance policy.

    Nowadays, individual policies offer excellent benefits, not like those that existed a dozen years ago. You might even receive a federal subsidy to help pay for the policy.

    Free Medicaid coverage (if applicable) could begin immediately, while the insurance policy may have to wait until January 1 (unless you have the right to special enrollment). Don’t wait, though – contact the marketplace as soon as you can.

    • Cyril Blair says:

      She wrote that she does have health insurance. Which is good, because if she’s a resident of Tennessee, that is a state that has not expanded Medicaid, so if she lacked insurance she would not be able to get Medicaid in Tennessee.

  • Barbara says:

    I like Bruce’s droll commentary but seriously, it must be awful to have to fret and worry about your health and whether you can afford to be treated. My sympathy to Zeneba and all young musicians like her.

  • William Osborne says:

    Aside from Bulgaria, White Russia, and a couple small countries created by the break up of Yugoslavia, the USA is the only developed country in the world without national health insurance. Even Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, and Costa Rica have it. Similar story for public arts funding. Even in China, 95% of the people have at least basic health insurance, and the government plans for all to have health care by 2020.

    America’s extremist philosophy of unmitigated capitalism has become an international disgrace. Here’s a map showing the countries with national health insurance. It could almost be the same map for public arts funding.

    • Alexandra Fol says:

      This map is wrong.

      Bulgaria has universal health care coverage for all citizens and residence.

      I am Bulgarian, so I know.

  • Alistair Ross says:

    She should move to post Brexit UK NHS in meltdown mode, ha ha.

  • Alexandra Fol says:

    Someone wrote that Bulgaria does not provide universal health coverage and as a Bulgarian, I can attest that this is wrong.
    All citizens of Bulgaria have access to free health care.