Musician and activist John Kolstad got involved in the health care debate back in the 1990s when he and a group of people informally studied it in a series of study circles where they’d discuss and study art, books and politics. Then the issue of health care came up. As the owner of Mill City Music, Kolstad is responsible for purchasing his and his wife’s health insurance. “I studied advanced physics and music, and I do some pretty good at those—but I could not understand my health policy,” Kolstad said. “It was maddening.” As he delved into the subject, first through his study circle and then as a concerned citizen, Kolstad became a proponent of universal, single-payer health insurance.
You’re a musician. How does access to health care uniquely affect artists?
Originally I was thinking of this from the point of view of a small business owner. Then you realize that artists are small businesses too. Musicians and artists are people who have been revered by every single culture for years, but look at what we do to our musicians here. They have to fend for themselves because they are often self-employed. I’ve lost some friends because of that, and now I’ve been trying to get some of my artist friends to actually talk to the public about health care.
I was involved in an event with artists for health care in May, and a lot of artists got a concert type event together. I wasn’t sure how that would work, but we had speeches and then Pop Wagner came out and did these rope tricks and would talk about the health care system (his friends had gotten together for him to help raise his deductible, which was $10,000). Then Kevin Kling got up and told about his brush with the health care system. It was great. So this is something that affects a lot of people and there are more and more stories out there and they’ve got to be told.
Why are you advocating for the Minnesota Health Plan?
When we were reading about this back in the 1990s in our study circles, we were looking at all kinds of studies, including about of the experience of Europe. We realized that European countries are spending half as much money for the same results, depending on what outcomes you use. We were reading and picking apart all the bills being proposed, including one being proposed by Wellstone at the time, and it just became very obvious that of all these different approaches, single-payer was the best option.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge about pushing single-payer in Minnesota?
I tell you, my big shock was back when I was learning about this. I thought, “I just gotta go to the people in the DFL and let them know we gotta do this.” And I thought the DFL would fall over themselves. But the DFL wasn’t interested! At one time we had a convention and every single delegate supported single-payer, but the leadership of the party was not interested in solving this problem, or if they were they weren’t interested in going up against the insurance companies.
The insurance companies have lots and lots of money—and I’m not against corporations, my business is a corporation itself—but it’s hard to go up the insurance companies when they have so much money. So campaign finance reform is tied to health care in a major way.
So what do you see as the next step?
I think the media is losing its credibility and they’ve failed to tell the people of our state important information about health care. I tell you, now that I’ve heard so many presentations and sifted through all the bills and information on this—and I’ve sifted through a lot—I think that if the people of Minnesota knew what was going on, they would realize that this can’t be solved any other way. So the question is how do we get to the people of the state to recognize it?
I was involved in creating the Metro Independence Business Alliance, a coalition of independent businesses. One of the motivations for businesses to join is so they can pool together their collective clout. It took us a couple of years to get to where we could talk about health care. But then we invited our membership and we had three presenters on why small businesses should support single payer. The whole board has unanimously endorsed single payer and the John Marty bill. That’s the ticket though. It’s about, how do we keep the people of Minnesota informed and how do we go up against false information?
Why is it so hard for people to talk about single payer?
You know, the solutions are all around us and the only thing that’s blocking us is lobbyists and campaign money.