Laura Lacy is woven into the fabric of the music industry. For more than a quarter of a century, Lacy has been the right hand and personal assistant to country music icons, entertainment legends and television and movie personalities. But, at 60 years old, she was battling osteoarthritis in her knees with unbearable pain and fatigue affecting her career and well-being. That pain had been persisting for eight years.
Like 76 percent of the music industry, Lacy is considered self-employed or part of a small business, which means access to group benefits, including health insurance, is non-existent. And according to the Future of Music Coalition, 43 percent of those music industry professionals, like Lacy, are uninsured. And not because she didn’t try. Quoted at one price, three months later her insurance was slated to increase. And she’s not alone — 88 percent of non-insured music industry professionals say it’s just too expensive to obtain insurance.
Enter Music Health Alliance, a Nashville nonprofit started in 2012 by Tatum Hauck Allsep to help members of the music community navigate health insurance and health care planning.
“We find solutions for health care issues, and that issue might be 'I don't know how to pay for health care,' or 'I have a new diagnosis, and I have no idea how to navigate it,' or 'I need insurance, how do I get it?'— It’s different for every person who walks in our door,” Allsep says. “And what we do is provide solutions when a lot of times it seems there are none. We do that by understanding the system and the law and hacks to the system — where access points might be and the income threshold for this or for that, what varies from state to state.”
Sometimes it’s helping with paperwork, other times it’s open enrollment education, access to physicians, hospital and medications, options to help pay if health insurance isn’t available. Often, it’s pulling out the sales gimmicks to help people better understand possible solutions. And since they launched publicly, Allsep and MHA have been dedicated to those solutions, so much so that they’ve negotiated $34 million in cost savings for their clients.
For Lacy, someone who has had this industry’s back, it didn’t occur to ask for help. After reading a Facebook post of Allsep’s, Lacy reached out, explained her pain and issues with insurance, and within a few days, she was in an orthopedic surgeon’s office — with no cartilage left in her knee. MHA helped her navigate an insurance plan that worked with her income, start the orthopedic recovery process and schedule a knee surgery for January.
“You know, this is big, and it gives you a new lease on life,” Lacy says. “I just turned 60. So I have a lot of energy, and I have a lot of determination, but geez when it comes to me, I'm not so good about taking care of myself.”
Since August, Lacy has had a mammogram, had her eyes checked, dental work done, and some of the pain has subsided with cortisone until her scheduled surgery. “This has been an absolutely incredible experience thus far, and the care and the concern and the compassion that [MHA] has for people is unbelievable,” Lacy says — you can hear the trembling authenticity and happiness in her voice. “I'm passionate about what they're doing, and I'm excited for people who are on the receiving end of their hard work because people deserve it.
“No matter who you are, you deserve to be healthy so that you can be a productive part of society.”
Allsep attended Vanderbilt University with the intention of going into medicine — her family is made up of surgeons and nurses, and she grew up working in emergency rooms during Mississippi summers. But like most who come to Nashville, music was right in her ear. She got an internship at MCA, worked there after graduation and expanded into music management. "It was like I found my family,” she says. “I mean it was this industry of misfits — nobody cared who your daddy was or how much money you had. They cared how hard you worked and how smart you worked.”
Sixteen years ago, after working in the industry for more than a decade, Allsep had a six-week hospital stay before delivering her two healthy twin boys. But with that came a six-figure medical bill that nearly bankrupted her. “I thought, OK, I run my own business. I had health insurance. I went to Vanderbilt. What just happened? That’s when the idea sparked.”
Allsep says it was the music industry there to help pick her up and put the pieces back together, quickly realizing that her story was not unique, and it wasn’t limited to small-time musicians who came to town and never made it. This, she says, was happening with industry icons too prideful to ask for help. So she started from scratch, and Music Health Alliance became her mission.
“The reason I love the music industry was the same reason I love health care — it healed me. It really heals broken hearts, and that touches people in the same kind of ways that the healing art of care does, so for me that was a thread. Being able to bring that thread full circle has been a true gift, and I don't take it for granted.”
Allsep’s family history in health care helps her translate the medical side to the music industry side and vice versa. And in most cases, the law — and being able to translate it — is Tatum’s greatest asset. “When we first started, we used to go in with grenades, just blow everything up, and what we learned is that people working at the hospital are just trying to do their job. The patients are just trying to get access to care. No one is bad in this equation,” she says. “But how do we translate the patient protections in the law? And we've gotten really good at that.
“What we know is what the patient's rights are, and we will go in and fight for that — but that fight sometimes is just two phone calls. Sometimes it’s a notarized letter that we can deliver that says look you're breaking the law here. Here is how and why.”
When you’re self-employed, Allsep says one of the most important and difficult pieces to explain is episodic income, something that doesn’t always fit into a tidy box. “Right now, you might be on tour with Beyonce, and you had a great three months,” Allsep explains. “When you talk to someone at healthcare.gov, they want to know what you're making right now. Well, that tour yields a lot of money in those three months. But that is not indicative of what you are making the entire year. So we’ve figured out a way to translate that so it fits it into the federal government box.”
For Allsep, it's her work helping others find that missing hope in the hopelessness that's the most rewarding part of what she does. “I think that's why we all keep waking up and fighting the good fight.”
“The fabric of this music industry is made up of those who don’t [have health care] — songwriters, producers, audio engineers, musicians, the road crew, the techs, the carpenters building the stages, bus drivers,” Allsep says. MHA’s programs and services, all complimentary, are offered to any individual who has worked in the music industry for two or more years. Their spouses, partners and children also qualify.
“These are the spokes on the wheel, the people who really make the industry go.”