Caring for the artists at O+ Festival
NORTH ADAMS — Lydia Velichkovski hadn't seen a dentist in two years. On Saturday, the 30-year-old Brooklyn musician, who doesn't have dental insurance, walked away from a cavity filling and teeth cleaning without a bill.
Instead she, and more than 100 other artists, performed at the city's first O+ Festival in exchange for health and wellness care.
"This saved me hundreds of dollars," said Velichkovski, who plays the keyboard in the experimental pop music band Erica Eso. "She said if I waited any longer, I would have needed a root canal."
The national festival — it's pronounced "oh positive" — was founded nine years ago in Kingston, N.Y.
There, Joe Concra, who is now the executive director of the festival, was having a beer with a dentist when they chatted about the creative community's lack of access to health care. That conversation steamrolled into a weekendlong music festival that now takes place in cities across the country.
"It's completely broken," Concra said of the health care system in America. "If we don't try and fix it, nobody else will."
On Saturday, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was a breathing ground for creative energy and wellness. Outside, some people practiced yoga, while others took a stroll to the two murals that were painted downtown ahead of the festival. Music was performed at different locations throughout the city.
From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., artists popped into a clinic set up at Mass MoCA's Building 6 before or after their performances at the festival. They were greeted by a variety of nurses and health care providers.
Nurses gave the artists physicals and directed them to more targeted care, such as mental health providers, craniosacral therapy, dental care or massages.
By 11 a.m., registered nurse Sue Anna Poitras had already screened five musicians and artists.
Aside from doing a basic physical, Poitras talked to musicians about the importance of protecting their ears during performances and let them know that there was training available in how to use overdose reversal medicine.
While the early crowd was young and healthy, some had ailments that are common to artists.
"I expect people to have repetitive injuries," she said, of those who use the same muscles over and over in their work. "Living on the road, they don't sleep well, they don't eat well, and they're in the car for a long time. That's not good on you."
Jessica Sweeney, who is the director of the North Adams festival, said that working in the creative community has exposed her to the challenges many face in accessing health care providers.
While MassHealth coverage is available to those in a certain income bracket, often those who work in the gig economy and might struggle financially for most of the year lose their coverage during a month that they take on a big project that pays well.
"You could have a really good year, so on paper you don't qualify for a health care subsidy," said Jeff Mercel, a composer and now the national music director for the festival. "The next year, you may not do well."
For Mercel, health care access was a problem in the early 2000s when he came down with appendicitis and had no insurance.
When he started feeling sick, but didn't know where to turn, he ran to a local bar where he expected his doctor friend to be having cocktails. When he explained the tenderness he was feeling in his side, the doctor had him lie down on the floor of the bar for a quick exam before directing him to a surgeon to have it removed.
Even with the help of his friend, which cut out some cost, the procedure racked up a bill of $8,000.
"That was then," he said. "I can't imagine what it would cost right now."
And high costs aren't the only issue. For some, especially those who live a life on the road, navigating the complex health care system is such a burden that they go without care.
Weston Minissali, of New York City, operates the synthesizer and writes music in Erica Eso. Even though he has health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, he hasn't been able to find a provider in the city with whom he's happy.
"There are so many [providers] registered with Obamacare you just don't know who to trust," he said. "You go to contact someone and they say they no longer take it."
Minissali said he prefers more alternative medicine and that care is rarely covered by his insurance.
"This country has so many urgent issues that need to be addressed, so many forms of discrimination," he said. "Living on an artist's path, we are underserved and I don't always feel comfortable drawing attention to it because there are so many other urgent issues."
Organizers of O+ realize that their festival isn't the miracle cure for the lack of health care access in the creative community, but the idea is to connect as many artists as possible to providers from whom they can seek out care in the future.
"There are people who haven't been to a dentist in 10 years, a lot of mental health issues, and people just needing to feel good and validated and valued," said Shannon Donnell, the national clinic director for the festival. "Every single day I see the disparities in health care in the country. It just doesn't make sense."
While to some, the idea of trading art and performances for basic health care might seem strange, Mercel said he doesn't see it that way.
To him, the festival is about "establishing a concept of equal value" between artists and those in the medical field.
"Here, the work of a doctor is on par with the work of a painter," he said. "Doctors and lawyers are revered in our society. Artists and musicians are not always seen in the same light. I hope this, in a small way, gets people to see them in that light."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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