Medical Crowdfunding is Now So Common, Some Hospitals Recommend It

Faced with astronomical medical bills, crowdfunding is becoming a necessity for some patients
Hands putting coins in a piggybank

In their early days, crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe were primarily the domain of hopeful artists and innovators trying to get a financial leg up on a new idea. Now, almost 15 years after GoFundMe’s 2010 launch date, fully a third of the campaigns on the site are fundraising to cover medical costs.

The company is aware of this trend. As Ari Romio, a GoFundMe spokesperson, told The Atlantic’s Elisabeth Rosenthal, "medical expenses" is the most commonly chosen fundraiser category on its platform.

This shift in crowdfunding is saddening — if unsurprising, given the sky-high cost of health care in the United States. According to data collated by the Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation Health System Tracker, the $12,555 per-capita health care spending figure in the U.S. is almost double that of many other high-income countries — and, indeed, more than double for Japan and the United Kingdom.

Indeed, a recent ValuePenguin survey found that among those who have crowdfunded for medical cost assistance, 43% said they wouldn’t have been able to cover the too-high out-of-pocket costs otherwise, while 34% said that those costs wouldn’t have been covered by their insurance.

And even with more than 90% of the U.S. population carrying medical insurance, medical debt continues to be one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy in the country. In other words, our medical costs are so high, patients have no choice but to pass the hat.

Crowdfunding medical costs now so common, hospital officials recommend it

Patients in need of costly-but-critical interventions, like organ transplants, are more likely to need access to additional funds, like those sourced from crowdfunding campaigns, to make ends meet. Even with good insurance, patients can be on the hook for thousands of dollars in yearly deductibles and uncovered or partially-covered treatments.

Transplant centers regularly ask patients to explain how they’ll pay — not only for the initial procedure, but also for the powerful, immunosuppressive anti-rejection drugs that ensure the new organ will function properly. These prescriptions on their own can cost thousands of dollars a month, and must usually be taken for a lifetime.

In some cases, hospital officials and financial aid officers recommend crowdfunding directly. That’s what happened to Grand Rapids, Mich., resident Hedda Martin, who was told in 2018 to undertake "a fundraising effort of $10,000" in order to be considered for a life-saving heart transplant.

Fortunately for Martin, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) publicized her story in a viral tweet. A GoFundMe campaign for Martin, organized by her son, raised more than $11,000 in less than a day.

But the vast majority of patients attempting to crowdfund their cures aren’t so lucky. According to a 2021 study in the American Journal of Public Health, looking at data from 2016 to 2020, only 12% of medical GoFundMe campaigns reached their goal. Worse, 16% didn’t receive a single donation.

Other studies show that crowdfunded medical campaigns display the same race- and gender-based disparities that plague the United States as a whole, with white men enjoying far more success in their efforts than Black women, for example.

Crowdfunding may also be less accessible to older, less tech-savvy patients, as well as those with certain disabilities. Even for patients who are able to make and manage a campaign, the effort’s success will likely be directly related to their online popularity and social media presence, creating a dystopian "survival of the most online" scenario in the world of U.S. health care.

Handling America’s health care costs — without crowdfunding

In the U.S. health care system, securing solid medical insurance coverage is a top priority.

Many Americans are covered through employer-sponsored group health insurance plans which can lower costs for both the plan sponsor (i.e., your boss) and its beneficiary (i.e., you). The growing class of self-employed workers and independent contractors have to get health insurance coverage in some other way — perhaps by buying directly from a broker on the private market, through the Health Insurance Marketplace or through a spouse or family member.

For those who anticipate needing a higher level of medical care, supplemental health insurance can help. Of course, more coverage means a higher out-of-pocket cost in the form of monthly premiums — on top of an average monthly cost of $584 for a Silver-level primary health insurance plan for an American 40-year-old.

There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel. Policymakers know that the cost of medical care is overwhelming United States citizens, and some are taking measures to attempt to bring those costs down.

For example, a package of seven bills designed to lower the cost of prescription drugs just passed the New York state Senate. And thanks to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, Medicare is now allowed to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on certain brand-name prescriptions that don’t have generic alternatives.

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