Rapping Without Health Insurance

Isaiah J. Poole

Try telling Maureen Yancey that health care reform is too expensive for the country to tackle right now, or that we should leave everything to the private insurance market.

Yancey is among the millions of Americans who can’t afford the status quo. She’s already paid too high a price—not just in dollars, but in the loss of her son, who died of lupus three years ago without health insurance.

J-Dilla.jpgThe fact that her son, James Dewitt Yancey, was the up-and-coming rap artist and producer J Dilla, did not keep him from falling through the cracks of our current health care system. The truth is that music artists, like most entrepreneurs, have to struggle in a private market of expensive and inadequate policies—if they can get insurance at all. In fact, 60 percent of the more than 45 million uninsured Americans are either self-employed or work in small businesses that don’t offer health benefits.

So Yancey joined forces with J Dilla’s compatriots in the hip-hop community Wednesday to urge fans of their music to join the fight for meaningful health care reform. The “health care remix” event was hosted by the Service Employees International Union.

Health Care Remix


Hip-Hop Caucus CEO Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest and Maureen Yancey, mother of J Dilla (James Dewitt Yancey), speak at a panel on health care reform hosted by the Service Employees International Union.

“How are we going to build a strong economy when people have to choose between healthy living and paying their bills and keeping the water on?” asked Dr. L. Toni Lewis, the president of SEIU’s Committee of Interns and Residents.

Or face more than $1 million in medical bills, as Yancey does.

The disease that claimed James Yancey at the age of 32, a form of lupus, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body literally begins to attack itself. It is a disease that particularly affects African-American women—the Lupus Foundation of America says women of color are two to three times more likely to have the disease than white women. Researchers don’t know what causes the disease, but some scientists believe genetics is a factor. That appears to be the case in the Yancey family: not only did J Dilla have it, but so does his mother and his aunt.

The diseased is chronic and can be debilitating and ultimately deadly. Treatment can be expensive, as Maureen Yancey saw first-hand when her son James began requiring extended hospital stays. At first, the hospital visits were covered through an insurance policy James Yancey had obtained through his job. But when he was unable to continue working, his mother picked up the full cost of the premiums through COBRA, the federal law that allows workers to continue policies they have through their job as long as they pay the full cost.

But COBRA only extends policies an additional 18 months, and when that time period elapsed, the Yanceys had no other insurance options. And the bills started coming in. Maureen Yancey said her son in the last years of his life was in the hospital for extended periods three to four times a year, and she was getting bills that were upwards of $250,000.

If she could have chosen a public plan to continue care for her son, she said, she would not have had to face those costs.

Her sister, meanwhile, is also without insurance and living with lupus. “She’s just praying that everything is good,” she said.

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. said that for today’s generation of young African Americans the fight for health care reform is comparable to the 20th-century fight against Jim Crow segregation. Today, he said, we’re dealing with “James Crow, Esquire” and “Jennifer Crow, MD,” people who “are literally drinking lattes at Starbucks” while making decisions that exacerbate racial and class disparities in health care. “They are much more sophisticated in disenfranchising us,” he said.

Yearwood shared the story of an uninsured young mother who did not have a primary care physician. Her infant child had symptoms that appeared to be cold- or flu-like, but she could not afford to take her child to a doctor to see if the symptoms were an indication of something worse. It turned out they were: a pancreatic disorder that ended with the gland literally exploding inside her, killing her.

“There is nothing like burying that baby and having that mother literally hanging onto that casket saying, ‘I want to be buried with my baby,’” Yearwood said, a note of anger in his voice. “Nobody should have to see that.”

That’s why whether you listen to hip-hop or Handel, it’s critical to share these kinds of personal stories to members of Congress and challenge them to pass meaningful health care reform with a public insurance option. “This is not a game,” Yearwood said. “We really got to go to Capitol Hill. We’ve got to get serious.”

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