Allies of SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris have blamed rising costs and the pandemic for recently announced changes that will sharply cut eligibility for the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan on Jan. 1.

“Nothing is as personal or emotionally charged as our health and the peace of mind that comes with having quality healthcare at an affordable price,” the Unite for Strength faction said in an email to members sent Monday. “Like you, we were shaken by the changes announced by the Health Plan last week. In the midst of an escalating pandemic, the timing could not be worse. The potential of reduced, or even lost coverage, is painful and frightening. The timing is particularly harsh when almost all of us are out of work.”

“Who is to blame? Relentlessly rising healthcare costs are not something the Plan has control over,” the message continued. “The best the Plan can do, like most other insurance plans, is to adjust coverage or premiums. The trustees were obviously confronting extremely difficult choices and their actions, while necessary, resulted in an amount of change that is difficult to take in. Like all participants, they too are bound by these changes and it gives us hope that they are willing to lose their own coverage to ensure the long-term viability of the Plan.”

“Two consecutive years of deficits caused by a staggering surge in health care costs—coupled with the gut punch of the global pandemic—have resulted in an unsustainable situation.”

The health plan announced in an email it sent to members on Aug. 12 that it would raise the earnings floor for eligibility from those earning $18,040 a year to $25,950, effective Jan. 1. Trustees said that without restructuring, the plan is projecting a deficit of $141 million this year and $83 million in 2021. The trustees also asserted that by 2024, the Health Plan is projected to run out of reserves.

The changes to the plan also come with many of SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 members unable to generate earnings since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March and caused virtually all productions to halt. The health plan is administered by a board comprised of equal numbers of trustees of the union and employers. The changes have sparked a petition signed by more than 13,700 people asking trustees to overturn the recently announced changes.

Unite for Strength has teamed with the New York-based United Screen Actors Nationwide to control SAG-AFTRA governance for many years, including backing Carteris during presidential elections in 2017 and 2019.

The message noted that SAG-AFTRA is separate from the health plan, adding, “Plan trustees are appointed equally by studios/producers and the SAG-AFTRA board, and owe their fiduciary duties to the Plan itself. Union dues we pay are separate from health plan contributions. The Union has had to make its own deep budget cuts, losing staff and programs. These are not easy choices. Nor do they offer a sustainable long-term solution. Something must be done about the availability and affordability of healthcare nationwide, and we urge you to make your voices heard where they count in our country’s politics, just as we plan to do.”

The missive concluded by urging unity among SAG-AFTRA’s members and noted that the union has organized presentations taking place on Monday and Wednesday.

“We can’t urge you enough to attend the Health Plan Zoom presentations, which will address the most pressing questions and concerns,” Unite for Strength said. “Many of our elected volunteers, including board members and delegates, are struggling and facing the same stark risk of not qualifying for the Health Plan under the new guidelines. It will be a tough road ahead but together, as one union, we will get through this.”