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Americans Don't Understand Their Health Insurance Coverage

Theresa BrownGold's painting "American Don't Understand Their Health Insurance" for her art project, Art As Social Inquiry.

Interview 6/2009. Oil on linen 40 ins. x 30 ins.

Oil on canvas 40 ins. x 30 ins.

I repainted John (top picture). This portrait (above) is the original 2009 portrait of John. I felt this early portrait did not capture enough of John. I will always be grateful to John. He understood my project immediately and insisted he be a part of it. I am very grateful for his support when I was just getting my footing. RIP, dear friend. Thanks for everything. xxoo

How the painting started.

Update 2021

This portrait was one of the very first for the Art As Social Inquiry Healthcare in the US painting series.

John was a regular customer at a restaurant I co-owned with my husband. John loved my paintings that filled the place. He insisted on becoming a subject for my project. Was he the very first for the healthcare series? I can't remember.

I started using art as a way to examine social questions in 2008 beginning with immigration. Very soon thereafter I landed on access to healthcare as the project's main focus.

John was an accomplished pianist. He was a kindred soul. He understood what I was trying to do with my project. He moved the project forward by believing in me and insisting on being in the project.

John told me he got his health insurance through his former employer, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He never mentioned Medicare, a federal insurance program for people 65 and over even though he was 65 when I interviewed him. I did not know enough to ask John about Medicare.

In 2009 John said he paid $585/month for insurance through his former employer the archdiocese. That is A LOT of money for an employee contribution to health insurance in 2009. And an outrageous sum for Medicare coverage. Was he delaying signing up for Medicare? Was he on some kind of COBRA arrangement and paying full price for his health insurance? Was he mistaken? I don't know.

I know now that $585/month for a 65 year old's health insurance sounds very wrong, a major red flag. ($585 in 2009 is worth $738.88 in 2021 dollars.) I wish I had known what I know now. I could have probed and figured out what was going on with John's health insurance.

John said his former employer was self-insured. I had no idea what that was and neither did he. I know quite a lot about self-insurance now. Larger companies can pool the employee and corporate premium contributions. The companies then pay the employees' claims themselves from the pooled money. The self-insured companies often hire third-party administrators to run their employee benefit plans.

The most blinding bit about this portrait is that John did not know how his health insurance worked. I find this to be typical for a lot of people. Most of my subjects -- especially in the project's early days -- were very unsure how the bigger health insurance system worked but they were experts on what is not working for them personally.

At the very start, I was like my subjects. I knew something was very wrong when I found myself thinking about hiring two part time employees instead of one full time employee. I was trying to avoid the expense of having to give a full time employee health benefits. I knew what I was experiencing. But like most of the people I talked to, I had no clue about the greater context in which so many of us struggled.


I second-guessed myself on this painting. I remember capturing John's essence right from the start and then not trusting what I knew. I was new at painting. But I loved the portrait when I finished. It felt like such an accomplishment to get a hold of somebody's spirit even if I did let a bit of it get away as I made changes to my original impressions. The photo is grainy. I can't even remember what camera I was using in 2009. Retaking photos is on the to-do list.

Julia Child said to never apologize for what comes out of the kitchen. I feel the same about art. Never apologize for what comes out of the studio. It's all a process in learning how to be true to the work. To do that, we learn to see without prejudice.

I tried to contact John for an update a few years after painting his portrait, but his email and phone number were no longer working. Today, a Google search turned up his obituary.

Thanks for believing in Art As Social Inquiry from the very start, dear friend. Rest in peace.


Retired Catholic School Teacher, age 65

Subject pays $585/mo for coverage through the self-insured Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


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