Patients Are Turning To GoFundMe To Fill Health Insurance Gaps | Texas Public Radio

Patients Are Turning To GoFundMe To Fill Health Insurance Gaps

Dec 27, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 10:41 pm

Tammy Fox wanted to help, after a friend took ill with a rare and difficult-to-diagnose autoimmune disorder that required many trips to the Mayo Clinic.

While Fox couldn't do anything medically, she knew there was a way to ease some of the burden of medical bills and costs associated with doctor visits. She turned to the website GoFundMe and set up a site for her friend.

"You've got meals; you've got hotel stays," she says. "And gas. So that all needed to be covered."

Contributions came in from strangers, notes Fox, who lives in suburban Minneapolis. "It's crazy cool how awesome people are and what they're willing to give. People, when they come together, can just move mountains — and I think that's awesome to see."

GoFundMe, the largest online, crowdsourced fundraising platform, says contributors have raised more than $5 billion, all told, from 50 million donations in the eight years it has been in business.

Setting up a GoFundMe page has also become a go-to way for people in need of help to pay their doctors and other health providers. Medical fundraisers now account for 1 in 3 of the website's campaigns, and they bring in more money than any other GoFundMe category, says GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon.

"In the old paradigm you would give $20 to somebody who needed help," Solomon says. "In the new paradigm, you'll give $20, you'll share that and that could turn into 10, 20, 50 or 100 people doing that. So, the $20 could turn into hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars."

Stories of tragic illness and financial hardship — all of them with pictures of those suffering — are easy to find in GoFundMe's medical section.

One such case is musician Carolyn Deal, from Marshall, N.C., who lost nearly all her hearing after a traumatic brain injury. Deal has raised nearly $25,000 for alternative treatments and procedures she would like to try that her health insurance won't cover.

Americans' confidence that they can afford health care is slipping, says Sara Collins, an economist at the Commonwealth Fund who studies American health care concerns. Even for conventional treatments that are covered under most health plans, the copays and high deductibles have left many people with health insurance they can't afford to use.

Her organization recently surveyed working-age Americans, asking whether they felt they had the ability to pay an unexpected medical bill of $1,000 in 30 days. Nearly half said no.

"We find that underinsured people are nearly as likely to report problems paying their medical bills as people who don't have any insurance," she says. "And they also report not getting needed health care at rates that are nearly as high as those who are uninsured."

So it shouldn't be surprising that people are raising funds through crowdsourcing, Collins says."But it really should be a deep concern for policymakers and providers."

Solomon says there are challenges with how health insurance works and how people are covered.

"There's just a lot of cost associated with the medical space, and it has become a very important category on GoFundMe," he says.

Until about a year ago, GoFundMe kept 5 percent of fundraising proceeds in addition to collecting a nearly 3 percent credit card processing fee. It still charges the credit card fee but no longer collects the 5 percent surcharge.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Minnesota Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2019 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

According to GoFundMe, 1 of every 3 of its online campaigns is now related to medical expenses. Some appeals are for people who say they don't have health insurance. Others say they have big bills left over after insurance or treatments their insurance won't cover. Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MARK ZDECHLIK, BYLINE: Browsing the medical section of GoFundMe's web page is heartbreaking. There are stories upon stories of tragic illness and financial hardship. Health care economist Sara Collins with the Commonwealth Fund finds the trend worrisome.

SARA COLLINS: It shouldn't be surprising that people are raising funds through crowdsourcing, but it really should be a deep concern for policymakers and providers.

ZDECHLIK: Most medical appeals follow a pattern. There's a picture of someone who is ill, an explanation of what's wrong, how much money is needed and what donations will be spent on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLYN DEAL'S "WATER FAIRIES")

ZDECHLIK: Carolyn Deal of Marshall, N.C., included a recording of her playing the harp in her appeal for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLYN DEAL: Hi. This is a tune I wrote called "Water Fairies."

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLYN DEAL'S "WATER FAIRIES")

ZDECHLIK: Deal lost almost all of her hearing following a traumatic brain injury. She's close to reaching her goal of raising $25,000 to pay for medical procedures her insurance won't cover. There are several online crowdsourced fundraising platforms GoFundMe is the largest by far and boasts 50 million donations that have raised more than $5 billion since it began eight years ago.

ROB SOLOMON: We help people tell their story, and that's probably one of the most significant things.

ZDECHLIK: That GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon, who says a third of the money has gone to help people battling health problems. There's nothing new about people coming together to help each other in times of need, but Solomon says technology has exploded fundraising potential and that people need help.

SOLOMON: In the old paradigm, you would give $20 to somebody who needed help. In the new paradigm, you will give $20 dollars. You'll share that, and that could turn into 10, 20, 50, or a hundred people doing that. So the $20 could turn into hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

ZDECHLIK: And it's not just people without health insurance who are turning to crowdsourced fundraisers to help cover medical bills because ever-increasing cost sharing, including copayments and deductibles, with many of today's health plans have left many with health insurance they cannot afford to use. Again, Rob Solomon.

SOLOMON: In the U.S., we obviously have some challenges with our health care system and with how insurance works and how people are covered. There's just a lot of costs associated with the medical space, and it has become a very important category on GoFundMe.

ZDECHLIK: Tammy Fox lives in suburban Minneapolis. She's fine, but her friend Donna is sick with a rare and difficult-to-diagnose autoimmune disorder. Her friend has had to make many trips to the Mayo Clinic.

TAMMY FOX: You've got meals. You've got hotel stay and, like I said, gas. So that all needed to be covered.

ZDECHLIK: There will also be medical bills Donna's insurance won't cover, so Fox started a GoFundMe campaign, and Donna's getting some contributions from people she doesn't even know.

FOX: It's crazy cool how awesome people are and what they're willing to give. People, when they come together, can just move mountains, and I think that's awesome to see.

ZDECHLIK: The Commonwealth Fund recently surveyed working-age Americans, asking whether they could pay an unexpected medical bill of a thousand dollars in 30 days. Nearly half said no. GoFundMe says it expects continued growth in what it calls social fundraising, including campaigns to help people who are ill. For NPR News, I'm Mark Zdechlik in St. Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Minnesota Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.