With SAG-AFTRA Healthcare Changes, Can T1Ds Stay in the Arts?


In the midst of a pandemic, SAG-AFTRA, a union that represents more than 160,000 actors and other onscreen professionals announced last week that they would be raising their health insurance premiums and tightening eligibility requirements for their members.

“They knew the health plan was in serious jeopardy two years ago,” actress Elizabeth Perkins (who lives with type 1 diabetes (T1D)) tells Beyond Type 1 exclusively, “But they didn’t share that information with the members as it would have seriously affected the vote in the collective bargaining table. I am supremely disappointed for every member, but particularly members that have a chronic disease or serious condition to contend with.”

Joining SAG-AFTRA is considered to be a huge step in a person’s acting career, because it means that they can now be cast in principal roles in “union” projects. Once joined, however, an actor cannot be cast in a non-union film and must pay annual dues to the union.

Effective January 1st, participants in SAG-AFTRA’s healthcare plan will have to meet a minimum earnings requirement of $25,950—which was raised from $18,040—and premiums for those who remain on SAG-AFTRA healthcare will increase.

“As actors, we have to maintain earnings to qualify for insurance,” Elizabeth adds. “So, to double the premium at a time when the industry is shut down is just cruel. For a type 1 dependent on insulin—the most expensive drug on the market—it’s shocking.”

The minimum earnings raise is not the only kick for performers relying on their SAG-AFTRA benefits. Spouses of members will no longer be eligible for the plan if their current employer offers insurance. Recently retired members 65 or older will no longer qualify off of their residuals—and the new health plan will axe the out-of-pocket maximum for out-of-network coverage.

Of course, actors within SAG-AFTRA are not the only ones struggling amidst COVID-19, as devastating cutbacks in the job market and resulting lack of access to healthcare in the United States are common. Because American health insurance coverage is usually tied to employment, more than five million Americans have lost health coverage since the pandemic began. Many people living with type 1 diabetes and other chronic diseases who previously thought they had stable access to income and health insurance in the US now no longer do.

However, those in the creative industry, such as the actors and onscreen talent affected by the recent SAG-AFTRA bombshell, have always—to some degree—known this level of uncertainty. Pursuing a less traditional job path while living with any chronic disease requiring routine care in America is a weighed risk. And, in the age of COVID, a career in the arts is looking less and less tenable for those with a health condition such as type 1 diabetes.

“Last year, I was quoted that my insurance ‘saved me’ nearly $28,000 on insulin. What happens to a type 1 when their insurance premium doubles during a pandemic and they don’t have the power to qualify through their earnings?” Elizabeth asks—and justifiably so.

Although very brave, a creative path, such as acting, writing, filmmaking, painting, or otherwise, is by no means a stable one—especially in the beginning. This goes for anyone, regardless of their health situation.

Those who decide to pursue a career in the arts often need to have side jobs to make their way for a while, or, if in need of stable health insurance, a full time job in another industry altogether—which in turn makes it very difficult to find enough time to focus on any creative endeavors.

And now, with SAG-AFTRA’s announcement, onscreen professionals have even less of a chance of having reliable healthcare, which raises the question—in order to survive, do the majority of people with T1D realistically have the option to choose a profession in the arts?

Unless a major shift among arts organizations is made post COVID, perhaps not so much anymore.

WRITTEN BY Alexi Melvin, POSTED 08/26/20, UPDATED 11/25/22

Alexi Melvin serves as chair of the Leadership Council’s Content Committee. She is a journalist who has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Beyond Type 1 and other digital publications. Alexi is also a voiceover actor and reiki master. In addition to her dedication to being a voice for people living with type 1 diabetes (T1D) everywhere, she has always been passionate about meditation and energy healing. Before getting her Bachelor of Arts degree at The New School University, she studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute. She hopes to continue her healing work, and to connect with other T1Ds through her travels and writing opportunities.