The Playgoer: Humana: Friend of the Arts or Just Another Insurance Company?

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Humana: Friend of the Arts or Just Another Insurance Company?

I don't want to tell Actors Theatre of Louisville what their politics should be, but...

As we all know the name Humana is forever associated with the ATL's prestigious new play festival. I don't know how it happened, frankly, but for some reason, theatre folk and critics who never even travel outside of the NY, New England (or maybe Chicago) areas descend upon Louisville, KY to see a handpicked few new plays that immediately garner national attention for their authors. And it's all sponsored by the Humana insurance company.

Well I know it's tough times for retaining corporate sponsorship at all. And I suppose we should be grateful to Humana for all this support over the years.

But then I read this at Huffington Post:

Many elderly Las Vegas residents were alarmed and confused Wednesday after receiving a mailer with an enclosed letter signed by the Chief Medical Officer of Humana Medicare, Philip Painter, claiming that Congress and the President are considering proposals to cut "important benefits and services" of Medicare.

The letter enclosed in the mailer tries to convince Medicare recipients that their benefits could be cut if the current health insurance reform plans are enacted.

[...]

To ensure Humana customers read the packet, it arrives in an envelope claiming to contain "IMPORTANT INFORMATION about your Medicare Advantage plan" and imparts urgency upon the recipients to "OPEN TODAY!" But the mailer contains no information about the recipients' medicare plans. Rather, upon opening Humana's "Guidance when you need it most" envelope, recipients find a recruitment packet asking them to join Humana's Partner Program to "show Congress the importance of Medicare Advantage."

Humana's Partner Program is Humana's community corporate organizing arm. Using scare tactics (convincing Grandma that her Medicare benefits could be cut), an enclosed Humana Partner Program flyer asks Medicare recipients to sign up (and to sign up their friends and family) to:

  • receive policy propaganda Congressional updates
  • view member profiles of other Partner members
  • learn how to use your voice for Humana profits reform
  • receive quarterly disinformation newsletters
  • learn about local tea bagger parties Humana Partner opportunities
Boldface mine. Sarcastic cross-outs by HuffPo correspondent Dawn Teo.

Hey look: maybe the folks at Actors Theatre of Louisville don't support healthcare reform. Or maybe just not enough to endanger the company's flagship program and its benefits to American playwrights. Finding another corporate sponsor in times like these would indeed be a tall order.

But I would hope they might at least consider expressing, publicly or privately, their disapproval of cheap lying scare tactics like these.

And if they don't, maybe individual playwrights and theatre artists can make their beliefs known--beliefs about access to affordable insurance and medical care for their many, many unemployed and under-employed artist/colleagues--by refusing to participate in anything festival with the name "Humana" in it.

10 comments:

99 said...

Oddly, for me, I actually give the folks at ATL credit on this one...at least so far. The X Festival (we'll avoid their name for now) has never seemed overly corporatist or particularly conservative and it's always felt as though the life and work of the theatre were kept separate from the concerns of the company. That may be a naive (and outsider's) view, but that's how it felt.

Now, an interesting test would be this: if the annual festival of short plays that feature the apprentice company was about healthcare. That would really put a stamp of independence on the festival.

I think that any playwright working on a hard-hitting play about health issues should be sending it to Louisville as we speak.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like "dramaturg without portfolio" doesn't understand the delicate balance between Actors, playwrights and the longest-running corporate sponsorship in the arts in America. Worth damaging this relationship over these letters? I know the Metropolitan Opera punted Texaco over environmental issues, right? Hmmm. guess not.

The Playgoer said...

Oh I "understand" alright, anon. I understand the situation is as desperate as you indeed describe it.

But are you really ok with how corporate sponsorship can intimidate artists into kissing their asses even when we know they're poisoning (and in the case of Texaco, literally) our society?

I'm just suggesting a little backbone that's all. And for the record--yes, I believe national health care is, believe it or not, MORE important than the continuance of the self-congratulatory exclusive club known as the Humana Festival for New Plays.

Food for thought said...

This is a complex discussion, but I just wanted to throw this into the mix: Throughout the history of the festival, The Humana Foundation has never exercised oversight or censorship over festival programming (or, to my knowledge, sought the right to do so). AMERIVILLE, which premiered at the 33rd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays last spring, attacked the health care industry head on, criticizing skyrocketing premiums, the cost-prohibitive nature of COBRA, and insurance companies who are out to make a profit at the expense of the health and well-being of people like you and me. "You've got to take care of yourself," says one character, "because Health Care don't care." UNIVERSES, who wrote and performed the play, certainly didn't feel compelled to "kiss corporate ass."

Whatever your criticisms of the Humana Festival (I'd be curious to know why you call it a "self-congratulatory exclusive club," The Playgoer), Actors Theatre continues to demonstrate its commitment to cultivating an environment where playwrights and theater artists can say what they want. I can't speak to how corporate sponsorships affect programming elsewhere, but I work at Actors Theatre, and I can tell you the Humana Foundation stays out of the way. They are not intimidating or pressuring the playwrights who come here. Period.

Food for thought said...

Another thought: Did you attend university? More than $400 billion is managed by colleges and universities, and although there have long been movements to promote responsible investment of these resources, the majority of university endowments are invested in a diverse array of funds, with some dollars going to support business ventures which might not be in line with social justice values. (Weapons, tobacco, etc. Maybe Big Insurance, too. Too often, transparency is also a problem.) This carries some uncomfortable implications for college students. Should they drop out in protest? Refuse to accept financial aid?

Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, most people reading this are constantly living similar ethical quandaries. The same logic that asks Actors Theatre to break its relationship with Humana would necessarily require similar radical breaks of ALL of us: college students to drop out of school, people everywhere to abandon their cars and voluntarily ration their energy use, and I don't know what else.

These are complex calls. Colleges and universities invest in weapons manufacture and big pharma; but they also produce medical research that saves lives. Colleges and universities train doctors, teachers, writers, and artists, leaders who will dedicate their lives to the pursuit of peace and justice. Many people couldn't attend at all without receiving financial aid--dirty money, you might [rightly] say, from questionably invested endowments.

Certainly Actors Theatre could break ties with the Humana Foundation to send a message about health care. But the theater depends on that sponsorship to produce its festival of new work. More than 400 plays have premiered at Actors Theatre--works that engage critically with the culture, add to the public discourse, provoke thought and challenge popular assumption. The dissolution of the festival would, I think, be a great loss to the cultural landscape of this country.

I don't have an answer here. I'm just trying to draw attention to the complexities of being a person or an organization in the 21st century. I'm curious to know what others think.

festering lilly said...

The same logic that asks Actors Theatre to break its relationship with Humana would necessarily require similar radical breaks of ALL of us: college students to drop out of school, people everywhere to abandon their cars and voluntarily ration their energy use, and I don't know what else.

I don't think The Playgoer's point was turn us all into moral exemplars. And the logic that "Food for Thought" puts forward is really the logic of equivocation and compliance. You begin by standing up to oppressive forces by taking a stand in whatever way you can. A little bit goes a long way.

There's also not much of a point in forcing the ATL to somehow begin a mission of producing work that criticizes the predatory tactics of its corporate sponsor. The problem is more subtle and penetrating than a temporary freedom for American artists to slap the hand that feeds them. But it's not so "complex" a problem as all that. All it requires is telling the truth from time to time and this blog entry is a nice start.

Food for thought said...

I certainly don't mean to encourage equivocation and compliance. Or "to turn us all into moral exemplars." I try to stay informed, engaged and responsible in the conduct of my life. I hope that my values are reflected in my actions. I know I can always do better, but this isn't a referendum on me or my work as an activist, so I'll leave it at that.

I actually support a single payer health care system. I don't think private, for-profit corporations should have anything to do with health care.

I simply meant to point out that the Humana Foundation is giving money to [what I believe to be] a good cause. I think there is some complexity here. Just my opinion. There's a lot of ugliness in the world, and a lot of equivocation and complacency, yes. I believe art has the power to jar people from their complacency, spur them to action. Maybe I'm naive. I hope not.

And while I agree that health care--human life--is more important than art, I also believe that art is among the intangible mysteries that make us human, and life worth living.

Again, I really don't have an answer here. Maybe Actors Theatre SHOULD tell Humana to go to hell. Maybe another corporation should step in and offer to match the Humana Foundation's annual gift. Maybe I should quit my job in protest. I'm not being facetious. Maybe a festival of new plays with a global reach is worth it; maybe it isn't. I think there's room here for discussion, healthy questioning, doubt. Which isn't the same thing as equivocation.

The Playgoer said...

Just to be clear, Foodie, I'm not demanding ATL denounce HUMANA immediately, or that all nonprofit theatres immediately examine their portfolios for all possibly questionable moral compromises.

Yes, the kinds of dilemmas you outline can be mindboggling. And no one can be expected to police them ALL for ALL causes. But perhaps each citizen should decide what matters to them most personally and act accordingly.

Case in point. This health care debate is THE public policy debate of this moment. It has ENORMOUS consequences for artists, and for theatre artists in particular and for anyone who considers themselves a "freelancer." Just imagine how life would change for professional actors, for example, if a "public option" freed them from worry about meeting their minimum weeks each year for AEA insurance. So THIS is something I imagine some theatre folk might want to take that kind of stand on.

I do not doubt the people over in the corporate philanthropy branch of Humana are good people. And that they are not directly responsible for the awful misleading propaganda scare-tactic mailings detailed in the article I link to. In other words, it's plausible to me the right hand of Humana, if you will, doesn't know what the left hand is doing. That's how the Philanthropy folks are fine with a play attacking insurance companies, while the corporate lobbyists work overtime to keep demonizing national health plans.

But when the stakes are this high, I believe that can be beside the point. You defend Humana from charges of censoring content of the plays...but I make no such charges. There comes a point that even IF your corporate sponsor (or the nice individuals you happen to deal with in their offices) doesn't really believe the lies coming out of the front office...maybe you have to hold them accountable.

Again, if the ATL folks are fine with Humana HQ's position on healthcare reform, then that's their right. But if anyone there--even in the offices OR anyone in the festival this year--doesn't like it, well they might want to consider the impact of saying something like,

"Sorry Humana, you can't have it both ways. Your philanthropic arms says you support us, but your lobbyists in DC are clearly against our interests. Until Humana agrees to stop poisoning the debate on this vital issue to my community, until Humana shows it can deal in good faith on this issue and look out for the artists it claims to support...I will no longer perform under any banner bearing the name Humana. I refuse to give this corporation cultural cover for its civic bad behavior."

Food for thought said...

I really don't disagree with anything you say. You're right: we each bear the responsibility to decide what matters to us most personally and to act accordingly. And absolutely: the health care issue has enormous consequences for artists all over this country. A public option would be life-changing not only for actors, as you rightly point out, but also for playwrights, designers, directors, technicians and many, many others. If you're a freelance designer, you don't even have the option of AEA insurance. It's a huge problem.

And yet: upwards of a hundred people are employed full-time at Actors, with additional overhire during busy production times, especially the Humana Festival. And the Humana Festival is so deeply intertwined with the identity of the theater that, were it to disappear, or even to diminish in scale, many people would doubtless lose their jobs. These are people with families, some of whom right now are pregnant, or supporting infant chilren, or caring for elderly parents and sick relatives, all struggling to make ends meet themselves. Most of them (myself, included), as theater artists, know all too well how frightening it is to live without health insurance in this country. If they lose their jobs at Actors they'll be heading out to fend for themselves in the worst job market in decades, seeking employment in an industry that was always--even before this economic crisis--short on jobs.

You might argue that progress towards justice requires sacrifice, that twenty or fifty or one hundred people losing their livelihoods (and, yes, their health insurance) in the short term is worth it, if it furthers the cause of reform and ultimately secures a more just health care system for the nation. Again, I won't disagree. Nothing of value can be purchased without cost; and yet, these are people's lives we're talking about. I don't mean this as a dismissal of your very legitimate concern, but merely to give more context to what I believe to be a nuanced problem, without an easy solution. I'm glad you're bringing it up, it troubles me deeply, and I think more discussion is needed.

The Playgoer said...

Well said, Food. Agreed.

I'll say one last thing. I wonder if artists are indeed as powerless as you suggest with sponsors. We must remember that philanthropy is always a 2-way street. Donors--especially corporate donors--are not just in it for the love of the arts. Aside from perhaps tax breaks, it only makes sense to them as part of a general pr strategy to enhance their image--i.e. an image other than "heartless corporation."

So a theatre like ATL might have more leverage than you'd think, if they remind a company like Humana that they can deprive them of that image and expose them as, indeed, a heartless corporation.

Would Humana give in? Not necessarily. But might there not be some OTHER, slightly less odious corporation willing to pick up the sponsorship, and have their name attached to such a prestigious festival?

The General Electric New Play Festival, anyone? Or even, The Google Festival?