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Artists put faces to uninsured

Pittsburgh-based Healthy Artists raises awareness and engages stakeholders

Tammy Worth, Contributor

It was a couple of pieces of art that prompted Julie Sokolow to look to artists as a vessel to campaign for universal healthcare.

Sokolow had never been very politically engaged until she saw Michael Moore's Sicko and then, shortly after, read T.R. Reid's book The Healing of America. These works brought the extent of the issue home.

[See also: Ranks of uninsured down; insurance rates inch up 4 percent]

"Other countries take care of everyone and we spend more, but we don't take care of everyone," Sokolow said. "It's the great injustice of America."

Sokolow began volunteering with healthcare education nonprofits in Pittsburgh and wanted to lend her particular skills to the issue. So she did what she knew: she began filming the healthcare stories of people who came into the nonprofits.

"There were a lot of people coming in looking for free clinics and they had stories of bankruptcy and losing their homes because of medical bankruptcy," she said. "They were not treating conditions because they were uninsured and I realized this is so dire and needed to be addressed."

Sokolow decided she wanted to raise awareness and get people engaged. Armed with a Handycam, she began filming her friends and other young, creative individuals in Pittsburgh. With some financial support from the community, she was able to build the Healthy Artists project.

This effort led to a documentary series with more than 30 short films and a juried art show. The group's events have pulled together students, artists, politicians and the healthcare community. She has also blogged on Michael Moore's website about their efforts.

Scott Tyson, a Pittsburgh-based pediatrician, and the president of Health Care 4 All Pennsylvania's Education Fund, said efforts like the Healthy Artists project are important because they put a face and a name to people who are uninsured.

"When people talk about the 50 million who are uninsured, they think, 'If there are that many, why don't I know them' or 'I don't understand how it is possible in the richest country in the world for people to be uninsured,'" he said. "Many are working and working one or two jobs and the fact that they have chosen to do art or music or theater shouldn't decide whether or not they have access to healthcare."

Tyson said he sees patients at a primary-care level, where he may bill them $100 – not an impossible bill to pay for someone who is uninsured. But care beyond a physician's office can break the bank.

"It is important in 2013 that we realize that people who are uninsured don't really have access to healthcare," he said. "Not everyone can afford to go to the emergency room or if they are on chemotherapy and lose insurance, they can't go to an emergency room to get it."

Healthy Artists is particularly interested in the creation of a single-payer healthcare system. According to a March 2013 report by Gerald Friedman, professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, this kind of system could save the state $17 billion annually while providing coverage to all of the state's residents.

Sokolow's goal is to create a template for an effort that can be replicated elsewhere. Sokolow said she would like increased outreach among the nation's youth (which she broadly categorizes as ages 16 to 40) to advocate for universal healthcare with their local politicians.

"We would like to see more organizations like this spring up and guide college students or other artists who might want to start documentation projects to create a more useful movement around this cause," she said. "Visibility is very important. We are trying to find ways for people to use their specialized skills for the movement."