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US health industry tells Vic to snuff it

vic chestnutVic Chesnutt took his own life on Christmas Day. By coincidence, he’d just given an upbeat interview to NPR’s Fresh Air in spite of an ongoing battle with his health care providers. The segment seemed to pierce the celebrity veil we imagine insulates our talent castes from the worries of everyman. When he died, I reflected on the interview. I was reluctant to mar a eulogy with the villainy of the US medical system — but then NPR re-aired the piece, en memoriam, minus the damning testimony. They added in its place a remembrance by three colleagues who concluded: “To say poor health care killed Vic Chesnutt would be very reductive.”

Reductive? These corporate musicians, at the behest of NPR, have to throw an artisan spin on Vic Chesnutt’s legacy because his art should transcend his mortality?! Vic’s art, real art, is about mortality. Vic’s death was real and the anxiety he expressed in his interview was real. He hadn’t chosen to keep his troubles to himself for the sake of the listeners’ seamless pleasurable enjoyment. Who are these commercial artists to mute Vic’s story? It made me sick.

Others wonder aloud why Vic’s rich musician friends couldn’t have offered to pay for the medical procedures he needed. Perhaps they did, who knows. And perhaps their concern not to be “reductive” was extracted from a much longer session where Vic Chesnutt’s struggles were discussed at length.

Vic’s talent may not have been lost on these would-be eulogists, but we can’t fault them for not being artist spirits enough themselves to know how to shepherd an honest narrative about Vic.

I point my finger at NPR for the rewrite, and I’ll take issue with one of the musicians. At a wake, there’s always someone who uses the opportunity for self-promotion, and at this one it was REM’s Michael Stipe. He discovered Vic Chesnutt, let’s get that out of the way. Michael’s remembrance of Vic was an anecdote about a lyric he thought he’d stolen from Vic. It was so good, he must have stolen it. Stipe was so honest, he called Vic to confess. Vic’s response was gracious, no it’s yours. Stipe insisted, and so did Vic. Such was Vic’s grace, and so elevated was Stipe’s regard for Vic, and evidently so great is Stipe’s humility and –in the end it turns out by Vic’s own lips– his genius. He transcended his master. Much of the draw of coattail opportunism at funerals is that dead men tell no tales.

NPR’s problem, and shall we imagine, the problem of its underwriters, the major health insurers, was that Vic Chesnutt killed himself right after telling an NPR audience he could succumb any day for lack of proper medical care. Chesnutt died from an overdose of pain killers, which raised the disquieting suggestion to listeners that he lived in a lot of pain. Sure Chesnutt had attempted suicide before. He’d written a love song to suicide. The trouble was, he declared in his interview that “Flirted with You All My Life” was a break-up song with death. “I don’t want to die” Chesnutt exclaimed most earnestly.

While our nation’s health insurers have been content to let the common sick extinguish themselves by attrition, their PR crews come to the rescue of high profile victims, usually the focus of mass protests, even if they come late. Vic Chesnutt had given them no time, between the airing of his interview, and his Christmas day demise.

To listeners who heard the first airing, especially ones who might never have heard of Vic, the tragedy of this internationally renown artists being unable to get health care was a climax. It was a moment when entertainment rang dissonant.

For the rewrite, Terry Gross removed the critical segment, leaving the focus on Chesnutt’s earlier suicide attempts. Gross sounded like an insurance interrogator the way she made Chesnutt clarify that his first attempted suicide was actually before his debilitating accident, before health issues would have been a motivation. I would like to see Gross dissect her guests’ responses with such scrutiny, I wonder why she began with Vic.

Thus the rewritten interview became an indictment of Vic Chesnutt’s propensity to self-destruct. Forget narrowing Vic to health care failure, Terry reduced him to habitual suicide. The character assassination continued by next highlighting his song “I’m a Coward.”

In place of the dramatic, redemptive climax, Gross interviewed Michael Stipe, Guy Picciotto and Jem Cohen. Just before wrapping up, Gross raised the issue of Vic’s health care. All agreed the system failed him, but their pre-discussion consensus was not to be “reductive.”

As if the songwriter’s legacy wasn’t going to speak for his whole. Here his colleagues were concerned that their characterization of his death would define him. If Vic had died mid-song, would there have been a need to say his life wasn’t just about that song?

Little did they suspect that NPR would “reduce” Chesnutt however they wanted. Once again where Vic Chesnutt’s sentiment connected with his audience, the industry hovered to intercept.

If you didn’t catch Chesnutt’s original interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, here’s how it ended:

GROSS: I read that you’re in debt like $50,000 because of health insurance issues.

Mr. CHESNUTT: That’s right.

GROSS: So – and this is because you had a series of surgeries and although you pay a lot for your health insurance, it didn’t cover all of it. Is that – do I have that right?

Mr. CHESNUTT: That’s exactly true, yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh. So, what are your thoughts now as you watch the health care legislation controversy play out?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I have been amazed and confused by the health care debate. We need health care reform. There is no doubt about it, we really need health care reform in this country. Because it’s absurd that somebody like me has to pay so much, it’s just too expensive in this country. It’s just ridiculously expensive. That they can take my house away for kidney stone operation is -that’s absurd.

GROSS: Is that what you’re facing the possibility of now?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. I mean, it could – I’m not sure exactly. I mean, I don’t have cash money to pay these people. I tried to pay them. I tried to make payments and then they finally ended up saying, no, you have to pay us in full now. And so, you know, I’m not sure what exactly my options are. I just – I really – you know, my feeling is that I think they’ve been paid, they’ve already been paid $100,000 from my insurance company. That seems like plenty. I mean, this would pay for like five or six of these operations in any other country in the world. You know, it affects – I mean, right now I need another surgery and I’ve putting it off for a year because I can’t afford it. And that’s absurd, I think.

I mean, I could actually lose a kidney. And, I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again. I don’t want to die, especially just because of I don’t have enough money to go in the hospital. But that’s the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can’t get health insurance.

GROSS: Is it true you can’t get good health insurance?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I can’t get – I’m uninsurable. The only reason I have any insurance now is because I was on Capitol Records for a while. And I had excellent health insurance there. And then when I got dropped from Capitol, I Cobra’d my insurance for as long as it was legally possible. And then – and which was insanely expensive to cobra this very nice insurance. And then, when that ran out, the insurance company said they could offer me one last thing and that is hospitalization. It only covers hospital bills. That’s all it covers. And it’s still $500 a month. So, it doesn’t pay for my drugs, my doctors or anything like that. All it pays for is hospitalization. And yet, I still owe all this money on top of that.

GROSS: Wow. Well, I wish you the best with your health and your music. And I really want to thank you–

Mr. CHESNUTT: Thank you.

GROSS: –a lot for talking with us.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Oh, I’m honored, honored beyond belief.

4 thoughts on “US health industry tells Vic to snuff it

  1. Rubbish article, NPR was right to discuss the interview again. The debts were just the trigger, not the cause, like his mother’s death was for an earlier attempt and so on. If only people would stop talking about “Flirtin…”, he wrote the song in October 2008 and a lot can happen in a year. Nobody that knew him was surprised by his suicide, sad as it is.

  2. You miss the point. His volatility was tipped by? Debt and pain. And you do not speak for everyone who knew him Jackass.

  3. Your article has severe factual errors. For one, Vic Chesnutt did not die from an overdose of pain killers as you claim but muscle relaxants.

    You also very conveniently edited out the full remarks made in the 2nd NPR interview where his friends specifically discussed Vic’s struggles with health care and state unequivocally that it made his life miserable. They stated ” the system failed him” ! Your misrepresentation of this is not only poor journalism but also just really odd. Why would you distort the truth in this way?

  4. Distortion like jumping on the nature of the drug being Muscle Relaxants rather than Opiates? Muscle relaxers ARE for pain.

    Those who live in desperation, yeah, they might go as far as killing themselves. Not getting health care is a very heartrending process to go through.

    The dude had a bigger audience for his struggle and was a better showcase for what it’s like. To show the world in human terms what it’s like. How many witnessed so graphically the death of my sister-in-law? Miss Johnnies husband when he died from Agent Orange?

    Most of who are denied health care are so poor that people don’t look our way. Afraid to see poverty, old age, sickness and death.. like Prince Siddhartha…

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