The Fight Within SAG-AFTRA Over Health Care

SAG-AFTRA Building - H - 2020
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Some members feel "betrayed" by changes to benefits in 2021 driven by "skyrocketing" costs.

An unofficial Zoom meeting hosted by the SAG-AFTRA opposition faction Aug. 14 drew nearly 500 participants in a visceral display of fear and fury as dozens spoke out against a restructuring of the union’s affiliated health plan that will hike premiums and tighten eligibility. The words used by many: “betrayed,” “heartbroken” and “lawsuit.”

While the eight-hour session focused mainly on opposition tactics and raw emotion, members now need to dig in to figure out how to adapt to the plan’s new options, most of which take effect Jan. 1.   “No one is going to steal my retirement,” thundered Sopranos actor Al Sapienza, a member since 1976. “No one is going to steal my insurance. No one is going to steal my 6-year-old’s insurance. Our union failed us.” (The plan is distinct from SAGAFTRA and controlled by a board of trustees equally split between management — studios, etc. — and the union.)

In a summary, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan notes the moves are driven by “skyrocketing health care costs” exacerbated by the pandemic and a drop in employers’ funding of the plan resulting from production shutdowns (when work evaporates, so do wage-based contributions from employers).

About 10 percent of active participants and 9 percent of their dependents will lose coverage, as will 8,000 retirees and 4,000 of their dependents due to increased eligibility thresholds and other factors. Among those losing access, THR has learned, are SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and two of the plan’s union-side trustees. Yet many of those affected will have options via Medicare, Obamacare or mechanisms the plan is adding that cushion the blow.

That went unsaid at the Zoom session, where some demanded Carteris be impeached and national executive director David White, also a plan trustee, be removed. Others, including meeting organizers Shaan Sharma — a self-described independent who runs on the union’s opposition Membership First party slate — and MF leader David Jolliffe, are looking to next summer’s union elections to oust Carteris and the Unite for Strength party slate and its allies that control the national board.

That could mean exits not just for the plan’s union-side trustees — who serve at the pleasure of the SAG-AFTRA board — but also for plan CEO Michael Estrada, Carteris, White and other leaders and staff. Negotiations in 2022 for the union’s commercials contract and in 2023 for the TV/theatrical agreement also could become more contentious, reflecting MF’s historically disputatious style. Pushing back, actor and former trustee Claudette Sutherland said on Facebook, “Don’t create drama when we have enough daily in our political system.”

Tempers may abate in a year, but dousing the flames will require much more adept, coordinated action by the union and plan — plus aggressive outreach to help incensed and terrified members navigate complex new health insurance options. Said one aggrieved actor, “All I have is time and rage.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.