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September 23, 2004

Governor Pataki Signs COBRA Subsidy Bill Actors’ Equity, Union Officials, Hail Landmark Law

Capping off an intensive lobbying effort by New York’s entertainment industry unions, Governor George E. Pataki has signed into law a landmark $3.75 million dollar COBRA Subsidy Bill that will help income-eligible entertainment industry workers to keep their current health insurance coverage through COBRA premium assistance. The new “New York State Insurance Continuation Assistance Demonstration Project” will go into effect in late November 2004.

Actors' Equity President Patrick Quinn said: "The Cobra Subsidy Bill is ground-breaking legislation. Without this vital step in health care reform, insurance coverage would remain out of reach for many New York State actors. I am proud of Equity's involvement in arduously lobbying the New York State Senate, Assembly, and Governor for the passage of this law. I look forward to joining forces with The Actors' Fund of America and other theatrical unions to see this type of legislation passed in other states as well. This is a concrete example of the strength of our Union in finding ways to better the lives of our membership, and I thank all of the Equity members who joined in the letter writing and email campaign that resulted in such a positive outcome."

“This bill is an important health insurance subsidy for the thousands of individuals who work in the creative arts in New York,” said Actors’ Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg. “Equity, along with our sister entertainment unions, has been supportive of this bill since the beginning. This victory caps four years of grass roots organizing by more than 20 members of the Entertainment Industry Health Insurance Coalition. We deeply appreciate the enormous efforts made by the Actors’ Fund of America and bill sponsors Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and Senator Kemp Hannon in achieving this success. We particularly want to thank Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno for their invaluable support of this bill and to Governor Pataki for signing this into law.”

The law sets aside $3.75 million in funds for the payment of 50% of COBRA premiums for eligible individuals and their families for a period of up to 12 months. Eligible individuals include entertainment industry professionals (such as those working in theatre, dance, music and music recording, film, television, radio, and circus) and displaced workers from plant closings whose previous year net earnings are at or below 208% of the federal poverty level ($19,365 for an individual, $32,594 for a three person household). The funds will come from the $200 million HealthyNY program that currently offers affordable health insurance to uninsured employees of small businesses and self-employed workers. COBRA is the acronym for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. Under COBRA, if an employee resigns or is terminated from work, federal law guarantees the worker’s right to continue the former employer’s group plan as individual or family healthcare coverage for up to 18 months at the worker’s expense.

Grass Roots Effort
A broad coalition of entertainment industry unions, guilds, social service agencies, producers and theatre owners, initiated by the four largest performers unions (AEA, SAG, AFTRA, and AFM Local 802) and coordinated by The Actors' Fund of America, worked tirelessly for passage of the bill. The sustained effort involved tens of thousands of letters, postcards, e-mails and phone calls from entertainment industry workers, petitions signed by the casts and crews of every Broadway and off-Broadway show, and the active participation of entertainment industry workers including union heads, theatre owners and well-known performers such as Jerry Stiller and Bebe Neuwirth.

“Through this unprecedented effort, the coalition was able to make a compelling case for health insurance continuation assistance for an industry that generates billions of dollars for the state economy, yet sees more than 30% of its working members going without health insurance,” said The Actors’ Fund of America’s James Brown.

Other Union Leaders
"The signing of this bill is a significant achievement, since twice as many workers in the entertainment industry are without health insurance compared to other Americans," states David Lennon, President of American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 in Manhattan. Cynthia Vance, National Board Member and New York Secretary of the Screen Actors Guild, added, "SAG's health plan is facing tough challenges and the resulting changes have had a dire impact on many of us. This legislation comes just in time. SAG is proud to have been part of a solution to the problem." Ed Fry, Eastern Chair of AFTRA's Legislative and Public Affairs Committee and Vice President of New York Local commented, "This bill provides badly-needed help for members who have found it increasingly difficult to qualify for health insurance. AFTRA has been an enthusiastic partner from the beginning. The unity and cooperation of the unions and The Actors' Fund have won the day. Now, so will our members."

The Entertainment Industry Health Insurance Coalition was formed in November 1999 as an advocacy group for health insurance legislation that would assist uninsured industry members. Its activities are coordinated by The Actors' Fund of America, the industry's oldest human services organization, and is sponsored by its founding members Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and American Federation of Musicians Local 802, as well as by the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, American Guild of Musical Artists, American Guild of Variety Artists, IATSE Local One, NABET-CWA Local 16, International Cinematographers Guild IATSE Local 600, Motion Picture Studio Mechanics IATSE Local 52, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Writers Guild of America East, I.B.E.W.-AFL-CIO Local 1212, United Scenic Artists Local 829 and Directors Guild of America. The Coalition also includes non-union organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The League of American Theatres and Producers, The Recording Academy, Musicians Foundation, Inc., New York Production Alliance, Career Transition for Dancers, Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, and the Episcopal Actors Guild.

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