Got A Big Medical Bill? Here’s What To Know About Crowdfunding In Healthcare

Friends, family, and online donors can help when the costs of care start piling up.

April 22, 2018
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Everything was going well for Angie Ebba, a 37-year-old woman in Washington, until she got sick and needed to turn to crowdfunding to pay her bills. She took medical leave from her job to get “poked, prodded, zapped, run through multiple types of machines, passed from doctor to specialist to naturopath, given supplements and medications, and turned into a walking (or depending on the day, sometimes not walking) medical experiment.” Her medical team just could not figure out the cause of her health issues.

Then, she lost her job—and that’s when the real trouble started. The cost of all that poking, prodding, and zapping had really racked up, and the bills were starting to come in. How could she come up with all of the money she needed while still trying to manage her health and find long-term solutions? It was completely overwhelming.

“I kept getting bills in the mail and I thought, ‘I can’t pay these, they’re going to go to collections.’ I had insurance, but the costs of copays, deductibles, and all of that stuff, especially when you’re so sick and they’re trying to figure out why, can really add up. In attempt to alleviate some of that stress, I turned to GoFundMe,” she says.

She had seen friends on social media use crowdfunding to pay for emergencies, but she had never imagined she’d be the one asking for help online.

“I am not one to ask for money,” she wrote on her GoFundMe crowdfunding page. “I’d much rather raise money for someone else. But today, as much as I hate to do so, I am asking for your help. I have 16 bills totaling close to $3,000, with more coming in each week.”

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When it comes to crowdfunding in healthcare, Ebba’s not alone. From 2010 to 2016, crowdfunding campaigners on GoFundMe raised about $930 million for healthcare costs. YouCaring, a crowdfunding platform dedicated to personal, medical, and charitable causes, has raised more than $1 billion—a significant portion of which was for healthcare costs, says Camelia Gendreau, head of integrated communications at the company. GoFundMe and YouCaring are just two of dozens of crowdfunding sites that people are turning to when they need help paying their medical bills.

“Crowdfunding in healthcare is on the rise, unfortunately,” says Gendreau. “Medical fundraisers make up about half the total fundraisers on our website. We’re here because too many Americans are slipping through the cracks, and they need financial support from friends and family.”

Why do people crowdfund their medical costs?

Scroll through your Facebook feed on any given day and you’re bound to see a friend asking for donations for their medical bills. Why are so many people crowdfunding the costs of their healthcare? One of the biggest reasons is the fact that medical treatments cost a lot more than people expect, even if they have insurance, says Gendreau.

“Almost half of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency expense,” she says. “In 2016, the U.S. spent about $10,000 per person on healthcare. When you take those stats and compare them to the fact that around 60 percent of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are caused by medical expenses, it paints a dire picture of healthcare in America. Crowdfunding is a last resort.”

But economics are only half the reason for the ubiquity of crowdfunding in healthcare. Prior to widespread use of the internet, people may have held pancake breakfasts, yard sales, and other local events to raise money for a neighbor’s medical expenses. But as people started moving their in-person communities to the digital space, much of that effort has gone online to crowdfunding platforms.

“[In previous generations,] you could always ask to borrow some money from a neighbor, or get emergency childcare. But as we’re all pursuing economic opportunities and moving away from our homes, our networks have become more widely distributed and it’s harder to tap into them in person. Crowdfunding allows people to recreate these social support networks in an online environment,” says Gendreau.

Not only do distant friends and relatives offer financial support, they also send words of encouragement—helping the person in need feel less alone during a tumultuous time.

Benefits of Crowdfunding for Healthcare

The most obvious benefit of crowdfunding in healthcare is the increased likelihood that someone will wind up with the money they need to pay their medical bills. The donations can make a big difference in keeping someone afloat. But there are a number of other positives to crowdfunding as well.

Ebba said asking for money online connected her to loved ones in a way that lifted her spirits when she was dealing with her medical issues. People reached out to send well wishes, offered rides to doctors’ appointments, and even dropped dinner off on her front porch.

“Creating the campaign and asking for help was incredibly difficult at first, but then it became very liberating when I saw I had people in my life who wanted to support me and care for me,” she says. “Of course, the monetary donations were helpful, but the people who reached out and offered support created a sense of community. That act of vulnerability turned out to be really beautiful.”

The emotional support Ebba felt through her fundraiser is common among those crowdfunding in healthcare, says Gendreau.

“The primary non-monetary benefit of crowdfunding in healthcare is getting people to rally around your cause. Most people start fundraisers on YouCaring because they have a financial need, but the most positive comments we get from successful fundraisers are around the social aspect and the emotional support they received,” she says. “They often turn around and donate to people in similar situations, and share their own inspiring stories that give people a breath of fresh air and some hope during a hopeless time.”

The Pitfalls of Crowdfunding in Healthcare

Crowdfunding isn’t all free money and cheerful words from afar. Raising money for medical bills online does come with some potential downsides people should consider before creating a crowdfunding campaign.

American culture is fiercely independent (we’re built on that whole “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy). As such, you have to swallow a lot of pride to start asking for help from the people around you.

“It was awful and hard to ask for help at first,” admits Ebba. “So much of our general sense of self-worth is tied about in our ability to take care of ourselves.”

Crowdfunding in healthcare also requires people to give up privacy and talk publicly about their personal medical issues. These stories are what inspire donors to open up their wallets. Crowdfunders who don’t explain in detail why they need money may not see much success, says Gendreau.

“Not everyone is comfortable opening up and telling their stories. Some people are so crippled by their fear of opening up that they start crowdfunding campaigns with very cursory descriptions that don’t let donors into their lives. Those fundraisers don’t usually do very well, so that’s a downside,” she says.

That running total of donations you see on crowdfunding campaigns might not actually be the amount that ends up in the beneficiaries’ pockets, either. While YouCaring has never required fundraisers to pay a portion of proceeds back to the company, GoFundMe only recently made its personal campaigns free for users (prior to that, it took 5 percent of donations). Other platforms still charge fees for crowdfunding in healthcare, and beneficiaries can almost always expect to lose a portion of donations to cover payment processing.

Beneficiaries of crowdfunding may face tax implications, as well.

“We advise everyone who starts a fundraiser on YouCaring to consult with a tax advisor to ensure they have all information they need before they start receiving money,” says Gendreau. “Typically these donations are considered non-taxable gifts, but we’re not tax experts and we like to refer people to professionals in taxes and accounting.”

How to Create a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign for Medical Bills

The success of crowdfunding in healthcare can be all over the board. You might see someone exceed their goal of raising $300,000 to cover the medical costs of managing multiple sclerosis, while another crowdfunder seeking $2,500 for an X-ray might not receive a single dollar. What makes a medical crowdfunding campaign successful?

First and foremost, you need to tell a compelling story. Giving vague reasons about your need for a large sum might make potential donors think twice about sending money to your campaign. You should share why you’re trying to raise money. Be as specific as possible about where the funds will go, whether it’s to help pay for medical equipment, transportation to healthcare appointments, or an invasive surgery, says Gendreau.

Crowdfunding in healthcare also sees the most success when the goals feel achievable to donors.

“If you think the total you’ll need might be closer to $100,000, that number could seem daunting to the community, so we recommend starting with $50,000,” she says. “If you hit that goal, it’s really easy to up the goal to $100,000, and it’s a good opportunity to give donors an update and thank them for their support.”

Speaking of updates, those are critical to success when crowdfunding. Letting people know how you’re doing—for better or for worse—helps build a community focused on your needs.

“Honesty makes a great update, plain and simple,” advises Gendreau. “Positive updates are really empowering and helpful to donors. But if you aren’t having a good day and the reality is that chemotherapy has made you really nauseous and you’re struggling, it’s important to say what you feel in the moment to rally support. Let the community know how they can help.”

Sharing your crowdfunding campaign on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, helps build awareness and could ultimately lead to more donations.

“Social media was the only way that I promoted my crowdfunding campaign. Friends would then share the campaign with their friends,” says Ebba. “Social media gets a bad rap from a lot of people, but for people with disabilities and chronically ill folks, it can be a lifeline to humanity.”

Like many crowdfunding platforms, YouCaring gives fundraisers the chance to be featured on its site. This extra exposure can help increase the chances of hitting your goal.

“We use an algorithm that takes into account geography, fundraising goals, and other diverse factors to choose campaigns to feature. Once you’ve raised more than half your goal, you increase your chances of being featured on the homepage,” says Gendreau.

Finding a way to give back to donors demonstrates gratitude for people’s generosity, and encourages them to make repeat donations. You don’t have to spend money on special gifts and products, though. Ebba gave back to donors by publishing an original poem every time her crowdfunding campaign allowed her to pay a medical bill.

“I didn’t want to ask for money without giving something back in return, but I didn’t have a whole lot to give. Writing a poem related to whatever bill I paid off or the procedures that had taken place inspired some people to donate. It also helped me feel better,” says Ebba.

Not a poet? There are dozens of other ways to show your appreciation, says Gendreau.

“Thank donors with emails, notes, cards, or however you see fit. Posting a video of yourself thanking donors also works well. If you find a beautiful, meaningful way to thank donors, they’ll really appreciate it,” she says.

Finally, when thinking about what success means for crowdfunding in healthcare, remember that it’s not only about the money. Even though Ebba raised less than 25 percent of her crowdfunding goal, she is grateful for the campaign for other reasons.

“Crowdfunding was a success in that it helped financially, but beyond that, it made me realize the vast support network I had. It became easier to reach out for smaller things, like a ride to an appointment,” she says.

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