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In musician's illness, help comes from the state

The Baltimore Sun

The good story within the sad story - the one about the talented rock guitarist Stanley Whitaker having two kinds of cancer and his old friends, including original members of Crack The Sky, stepping up to donate a concert on his behalf - is that the state of Maryland is helping Whitaker pay for his treatment. This is not what I expected to hear when I spoke with his wife, LeeAnne.

What I expected to hear is that an uninsured, self-employed, low-income, middle-aged musician with two kinds of cancer would need a benefit concert because of astronomical hospital bills - and no way to pay for them.

It turns out, Whitaker has big bills, but a program called the Maryland Health Insurance Plan is there to help the man get the treatments he needs. MHIP is the story within the story, a program established by the General Assembly a few years ago to help high-risk patients who have been turned down for insurance elsewhere and who have a qualifying condition such as the leukemia and adenoid cystic carcinoma diagnosed in Stanley Whitaker last summer.

His wife, a vocalist who sometimes performs with Whitaker, had no idea the program existed when, with bills quickly mounting, she started hunting for help. "We had been turned down for coverage a lot," says LeeAnne Whitaker, who lives with her husband in northern Baltimore County. She says they never purchased insurance because they couldn't afford it, and enjoyed relatively good health. "We're non-smokers, kind of athletic as musicians go, you know? Bookish rockers, not the kind that swing from chandeliers."

A cancer counselor told LeeAnne Whitaker about "M-HIP." She applied for the program and MHIP accepted her husband for coverage starting Aug. 1. "It all happened kind of fast, too," she says.

With MHIP's subsidy for low-income patients, the Whitakers will pay a premium of $304 a month starting in February. To get into the plan, they had to borrow money from friends to pay six months of premiums up front.

"I don't want anything for free," says LeeAnne, "but even $304 a month is tough." And the Whitakers do not get retroactive coverage.

Bills prior to Aug. 1 mounted to about $10,000, says a friend, Bruce Penczek. Since then, there have been more treatments for the rare cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, that was discovered in Stanley Whitaker's salivary glands. Penczek calculated that costs through the end of November will be about $42,000. That doesn't include the significant costs Whitaker faces from his second diagnosis for chronic low-level leukemia. Nor is it clear how much of all this will be covered by MHIP, though LeeAnne Whitaker hopes it will be about 80 percent. She calls it an excellent program, and she's grateful for it. Apparently, several thousand Marylanders are.

This appears to be a state program that works.

About a third of what MHIP spends on health care comes from premiums; the rest comes from an assessment of 0.81 percent on each hospital bill. That's MHIP's main funding mechanism, authorized by the General Assembly a few years ago as an improvement on the old "insurers of last resort" program that apparently cost too much and enrolled too few.

The growth in MHIP during its six-year history been remarkable. With 15,000 members, MHIP serves the state's most vulnerable and high-risk patients. There are conditions for eligibility, starting with a denial by other insurers within six months of making an application, and a qualifying medical condition. Richard Popper, the plan's executive director, says MHIP has seen net enrollment increasing each year by 3,000 to 4,000. He says the plan's maximum capacity is 18,500 based on the current funding formula.

While it doesn't solve the problem of all the nearly 800,000 uninsured Marylanders, MHIP has made a dent, particularly among some of the state's neediest residents.

Stanley Whitaker is one of them.

He's 54 and a long-time rock guitarist signed in the 1970s by the legendary record producer Clive Davis. "He's the greatest guitar player I've ever seen," says Penczek. "He's well-known and well-loved in our community."

Whitaker was a founding member of the progressive rock bands Happy The Man and Oblivion Sun. He traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, performed with Peter Gabriel and became friends with others in the progressive movement - members of Crack The Sky, for instance.

That band, along with Rob Fahey and David Bell, formerly of the Ravyns, as well as Hectic Red and Baltimore School of Rock are donating their time and talent for a benefit concert to help the Whitakers pay medical bills and make up for loss of income. It will be staged Sunday, Nov. 9, at Timonium Fairgrounds, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. A $75 ticket includes a bull roast, beer and wine.

"We have found that, due to the current financial environment, it is difficult to raise funds from corporate America, though the Orioles and 1st Mariner Bank are sponsors of our event," says Penczek. "We heard from a booking agent that he has had to cancel six bands from fundraising events due the economic times."

Stanley Whitaker hasn't been able to play his guitar in a while. So Penczek hopes the Nov. 9 concert will serve two purposes - pay the bills that the insurance won't cover, and lift Stanley Whitaker's spirits enough that he might even strap on a guitar and play for the crowd.

For ticket information about the concert, visit the Web site of the Whitaker Gift Foundation at whitakergiftfoundation.com or 410-239-0986.

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