Muppeteer Michael Earl has colon cancer, is uninsured; muppet fans raise funds for his care.

BB reader Tony Teofilo says,

Master puppeteer Michael Earl (he did The Muppet Movie, Sesame Street, and many others) has Stage 3 Colon Cancer and no insurance. Any chance you could let the happy mutants know via BoingBoing? Swazzle is having a benefit sale for him 10/20; there is also a donation page if people want to help with his medical costs.

Michael is maintaining a personal blog about his treatment here. This post about how he found out is both sad and informative. The tl;dr: lack of insurance kept him from getting imagine and a resulting diagnosis, so a friend suggested he enroll in a study for constipation advertised on Craigslist. Scans would be included for all participants. Snip:

At Puppet School, we had a student interning with us learning to make puppets. Her name is Amy Smith and one day she tells me she saw a post on craigslist for a research study on constipation. She suggested I call them because it may help, plus they pay $50 a visit. So I called and left a message. One week went by and no returned call so I forgot about it.

Then suddenly one day my phone rang with a guy asking if I was still interested in the study. In that phone call he told me they would pay me $100 to go get a colonoscopy. So I signed up and within 4 days was having the procedure. After I woke up, the doctor came in and said, “Well there’s just one way to tell you this, and that’s just to tell you that you have cancer.” He showed me some photos of it he took during the colonoscopy. There was one that showed this large gray mass growing around the colon. Very ominous looking. Then he told me it looks like I’ve had it for awhile. And then told me I would likely need a combination of surgery, chemo and radiation.

So that’s how I learned I had cancer. Shocking, but I had been wondering for months so I was kind of prepared for the news.

So now the journey begins…


  1. I don’t know exactly what his employment situation was, but many people who work in the entertainment industry don’t receive health benefits because of how labor arrangements tend to be structured. The unions step in to fill this gap in some cases, but many, many people fall through the cracks. Many of them, to use your wording, are “contract jobs” of a sort.

  2. Michael teaches puppetry classes in LA and is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He’s one of those people that just inspires and supports creativity in others. 
    Sorry to hear this but I’m glad people are rallying for support. 

  3. I don’t know what the big deal is. Like Mitt Romney said, “No one dies because they don’t have health insurance.”

    You know I’m being sarcastic, right?

    1.  Y’know, the fact that people are pulling together to help this guy kind of proves Romney right.  He doesn’t have insurance but he’s still going to get treated.  Not that I think that everyone is so lucky.

      1. I would imagine the majority are not so lucky.  How many times has this situation happened to someone who isn’t associated with a TV show that millions love and grew up with?  Those unfortunate people don’t get posted on boingboing.

        One can presume the corollary to this argument is that they aren’t worth saving.  “Not insured?  Didn’t touch millions of peoples lives?  Sorry dude.  Should’ve worked harder, ya damn mooch.”

        1. And just as importantly, the fact that this man didn’t have insurance or access to affordable care delayed his diagnosis and treatment. The longer cancer goes undetected and untreated, generally speaking, the worse things are.

          Insurance and access to health care are not just about caring for the patient after disease is identified, but about how and whether the disease is identified at all. And, what delay means for the patient’s quality of life and treatment outcome.

        2. That’s mean-spirited and not true. I’ve written about other people with cancer who are in dire straits because of the fucked-up health care system in America. It’s not like I only write about famous people with cancer or whatever. Also, FYI? I have cancer. And I’m in a similar boat, financially speaking.

          1. I apologize, you certainly have, and apparently did not convey my point well.  I needed to add a tag to my last paragraph.
            My point was that there’s no way everyone in this situation can be covered by crowd sourcing, it’s completely impractical.  That’s why we need to change the way people are covered, and give everyone an equal opportunity to health care in the US.  Name recognition should not be the distinguishing factor in who is able to receive care, but that will be a large part of crowdsourcing.

            Like those who argue the LouisCK/Radiohead model doesn’t work for small bands, the crowdsourcing health care probably doesn’t work for people not associated with a beloved brand, but that DOES NOT mean they deserve less health care assistance.

          2. Sure.

            To clarify:

            Boing Boing is not responsible for the health care crisis. I resent comments suggesting that we’re jerks for drawing attention to specific cases. I do that because nobody gives a shit about the millions of cases as an abstract thing; people only give a shit when it’s about a single person to whom you can relate, for whom you can empathize. This guy isn’t a statistic. Neither am I. Maybe if people read more about our individual stories, they’ll care about all of us.

  4. The part of Obamacare that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions should already be in effect.

    How does it not apply in this case?

    Of course the insurance is not free, but would have to be cheaper than paying for care a la carte.

      1.  Insurance is crazy-expensive. Just because the insurers have to cover your pre-existing condition doesn’t mean they have to make it affordable. Quite the opposite – if they see something like cancer, or allergies, or mental health issues in your background, they are going to price your coverage so that you can’t afford to buy it.

    1. Insurance does not mean affordable care. If you had cancer in the US, you’d know this.

      I’m not this man’s spokesperson, but it sounds like the issue was just that he could not afford insurance. Now that he has cancer, he may be even less likely to be able to afford a policy, even if an insurance company can’t legally deny him a policy.

      Additionally, insurance doesn’t cover everything. I am one of many, many Americans who has insurance and is still financially devastated from the costs not covered by my policy, which are huge.

      Insurance != affordable care, despite the rhetoric.

    2. “The part of Obamacare that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions should already be in effect.

      How does it not apply in this case?”

      Because that part of Obamacare doesn’t kick in until 2014.  Same time as the individual mandate.

      Ask me how I know.

      Children with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied right now.  Adults?  We can go die in an apartment.

  5. American health care:  Be wealthy, be insured or be famous.  Or die.

    I wish Hugo Chavez would start a reality show where average, everyday uninsured Americans facing life-threatening illnesses could compete against each other.  Combination Laser tag/Jeopardy/obstacle course/talent show.  Viewers could call a 1-800 number to see who wins treatment, courtesy of Venezuela.  Runners-up get their funeral expenses paid for.  Maybe shame will motivate this country into doing something.

    1. Maybe shame will motivate this country into doing something.

      Nah, I think ‘mericans do better with bullshit pride nowadays.  Shame is for self-aware pussies.

      Disclaimer: Yes, I’m fucking bitter.

    1. I think Romney is well aware of the suffering and is pained by it, but he licks his wounds with wet hundred dollar bills.

  6. Most new jobs are created by small businesses.  Most small businesses cannot afford the cost (including additional HR office time) of health insurance for the jobs they offer.  THIS is the end result.

  7. I’ve just come off of diagnosis, surgery, and after treatment for cancer. My prospects are good. Got it in time and I had crummy, expensive, insurance, but I had something including savings set-aside for medical expenses.

    That noted, the medical insurance industry is about profits before care. And the physicians who are associated with the practice of medicine are engaged in billing for procedures, not for best outcomes.

    Insurance could be about shared risk, but we have forgotten that in confusion about what markets can and cannot do. Care isn’t in the business model. The free market, and maximised financial gain for the insurance company serves patients poorly.

    I’m willing to share Michael’s risk by contributing to his treatment fund. I hope that this makes a difference. – You are never so alone as when you do cancer. – And I hope that others can find it in themselves to contribute, too.

      1. Thank you. Now let’s put pressure on our elected representatives to represent us. And work for a medical industry that provides health care to the citizens of our great nation. I drop notes to my reps from time to time, and I get a canned reply, but at least they know that someone has noticed we need to fix what clearly is broken. – Death panels are not some consequence of making medicine work; they are here right now. And a tangential thought is that a nation that is full of kids growing up without a trip to the doctor or dentist is not a world player.

        1.  Absolutely. There may be no way around the existential aloneness of cancer (or any disease) but that doesn’t mean we should settle for a system willing to leave people stranded financially and medically.

  8. I don’t find many things offensive, but this offends me. No, not Boingboing’s attempt to help people, I think that’s great. I wish everybody could be helped and people would always pull together to support each other for health care. No, what offends me is that such a system doesn’t exist in a large and rich country. What offends me is that Boingboing even has to try to pull people together to assist the few people that get brought to their attention. This should never be needed in a modern country!

    Of course, none of this is news to anyone here.

    Anyways, good going Xeni, it is good that the happy mutants try to do their part! I’m on the verge of suggesting a sort of “medical treatment donation fund” that would be run by boingboing, much like PennyArcade’s Child’s Play fund..

  9. As a 29 year old female that was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in August of this year I can confirm that insurance is not the same thing as health care.

    I have insurance and I’m still hemorrhaging money. Don’t let the colorful insurance booklets full of smiling faces fool you. When it comes down to it there is really no way to tell what they cover until they turn you down. I tried for weeks before my official treatments began to get an estimate of what I would be spending and neither the insurance company or hospital would give me one. The only estimate that I ended up being able to pull out of them was that my original colonoscopy would cost somewhere between $0-$2,500 depending on several different factors to be determined after the fact. There is literally no way to prepare or to budget when no one will give you any numbers and most of the calculations will not be made until after the procedure.

    I was on the phone with my insurance company today asking them why I was receiving a bill since I had already met my deductible for the year and I was told that after the deductible was met the total then rolls over to another type of out of pocket total that was actually quite a bit more that the deductible before I was considered done with my contributions. I can honestly say I had never every heard of this secondary type of out of pocket total and I try to stay very educated. I am going to go back through documentation that I was give to see if it ever even appeared. It seems like every step of the way stuff like this is happening.

    I’m pretty sick of hearing “Oh I’m sorry that procedure that counted toward one total last week is now classified completely differently so you are responsible for the charge this time ” what they are really saying is we didn’t want to pay it this time so we came up with an arbitrary internal judgment and an amazing amount of double think that absolves us from responsibility. It seriously takes an amazing amount of mental gymnastics to try to follow their logic.

    Sorry this is getting long but if you are interested in numbers.
    Cost of colon resection and 4 days in the hospital $25,801.50 before insurance. Not including $16,000 in tests before they even decided we needed the surgery. 6 different $45.00 copays for doctors visits. Around $2,000 for people to read the tests. I wish I could even tell you how much in blood work but I would have to get all my papers back out and I’m just not that committed for a rough estimate. All of this in accrued in a 3 month period and I still haven’t started radiation and chemo that will last approximately 7 1/2 months in total. Not including the $5,000 in tests that the insurance denied to approve so they will not be done even though they could detect a life threatening inability for me to take the chemo. But insurance will not cover it until after you have a bad reaction to the chemo. Wrap your head around that. 1 or 2 doses of chemo could be fatal if you have an inability to process it but they will not do the test until after you are half dead because the insurance will not cover it. Totally makes sense >.<

    All of those numbers are with insurance numbers so it is safe to say much less than without insurance numbers. 

    TL:DR : Insurance is not health care.

    1. I hope you recover.  Hang in there.

      “I tried for weeks before my official treatments began to get an estimate of what I would be spending and neither the insurance company or hospital would give me one.”

      Yes, this.  I just had surgery that was planned, and I was practically in tears trying to find out exactly what my out of pocket costs would be because oh, here’s the number for the procedure but that doesn’t cover the anesthesia, well the anesthesia could be any cost and some of the anesthesiologists at Hospital X aren’t in-network even though Hospital Y and Surgeon Z are, and no there’s no way to request a certain anesthesiologist, and no that may or may not cover your overnight observation, it depends on whether they classify you as inpatient or outpatient, and….”

      And so three weeks later I still don’t know if I’m going to get hit with a giant bill.  Conservatives love to talk about how Americans need to be consumers, get some “skin in the game,” not feel like we’re entitled to go to the ER and get an MRI for every little scratch or cough because it costs money, but when we TRY to be informed consumers, and find out “should I cut my grocery bill this month in anticipation of this procedure? should I buy a plane ticket home for Christmas or will I need that money? should I pick up some hours at a temp job to supplement my income?  HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST ME AND CAN I AFFORD IT RIGHT NOW?” we are talking to brick walls.

  10. We can save Mr. Earl, perhaps, but as long as we continue to vote for people like the two corporate tools I saw in “debate” the other day – where they competed to see who could be most vocally in favor of increased oil drilling and coal mining – we will inevitably condemn millions of our children to suffer cancer.  Cancer rates increase with environmental degradation and corporatization of food and energy production.

    1. To say that Romney and Obama are the same is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.  I don’t like Obama, but for Gawd’s sake, please give him some credit where it’s due.  He the first President in decades to at least TRY to push towards better health care for Americans.  Romney and his republican buddies will send us all spiraling backwards and it WILL kill more people and it WILL cause more suffering.  Can we do better than Obama?  Hell yes!  But, as we’re still reeling from 8 years of republican rule, we should all know by now that we can do much worse as well.

      I just hope in 4 years the American public finally pulls its head out of its collective ass and DEMANDS a single payer system for health care, not this Obamacare bullshit or Romneycare crap either.

      1. To say that Romney and Obama are the same is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.

        Good thing I didn’t say that, then, huh?

  11. I remember reading that the republicans regarded Obama as a socialist/communist for proposing something even similar to universal health care.  Since when is it a political issue to be ashamed that your fellow citizens are dying from neglect?

    1. Proper universal health care is socialist. The thing is that socialism is used as a synonym for bad. Public roads are socialist, public fire departments (as opposed to the fucked up mess that was private fire departments) are socialist, Social Security is so socialist it has social in the name. There are a lot of things that aren’t improved by competition. Competition in health care is good, competition in health insurance doesn’t work. The reason for this is simple: they’re not competing to see who makes the most people the healthiest, they’re competing to see who makes the most profit.

  12. And so a grown man who’s helped entertain millions of children is reduced to begging to pay for medical care.

    This is seriously taking the f**king piss. And for the useful idiots who somehow think that healthcare reform is the equivalent of a large hairy Soviet flying in and turning your children into atheist lesbians, please consult your consciences and your reason a little more.

  13. I cannot understand how a country that PRs itself as an advanced nation doesn’t even have basic health insurance.

    The U.S.A. is totally backward in many ways.

    1. It’s because the U.S. is totally unable to look at another country and say “Hmm, their system seems to be working better than ours, maybe we should try something like that?”
      Most developed countries, however full of themselves they seem to be in other respects, are capable of that.

  14. I can’t understand how anyone could possibly complain about the NHS, when the alternative is America wHealth Care. I have a problem with my knee’s, my NHS doctor tells me I am too young (<40) to have a problem and I should exercise despite have worked 14 hours a day 6 days a week for the last few years in a job that has meant standing for 98% of the time. I had plenty of exercise too. The short of it all, the NHS is hemorrhaging money to fat cats and pharmaceutical companies who charge unreasonable amounts of money for pills that save lives and help in the cure of common cancers etc. They can't justify giving my knees the once over with X-ray or MRI scan because I am not in the right demographic likely to be suffering from a joint complaint. Instead I quit my job I loved and earnt a little over the average weekly wage instead to take up a more stressful job with less hours and much less pay to take the physical strain off my knees. I don't enjoy the work anymore and can't go back to my old line of work. The NHS is good, the people on the low end of the NHS are hard working and underpaid. The management are overpaid and underworked  They take too much pay and the patents have to be in a certain demographic to qualify for certain treatments. The issue of doctors diagnosing illnesses that could benefit from certain medicines that may result in a kickback to the practice he works for also exists, and causes clusters of illnesses like 'depression' to appear in those area's. 

    I hope this guy gets better and I hope that the insurance industry realises how embarrassing it must be for them that they price themselves so high that a hard working guy like this has to take donations to to pay for treatment instead of using their services, when it comes a matter of life and death should money really be that important that they couldn't work on the basis that they loan the money required to make his life better, and his healing would be in their interest in order that he pays his way back?

    America should be upset that even a 3rd world country with embargos enforced on them, offer better health care to all it's people (Cuba).

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