GiveForward Helps You Crowd-Fund Medical Expenses

Would you donate money to help a sick friend in need? Here's how people are crowd-funding medical care. This might come in handy.

Medical costs cause more than 60 percent of all personal bankruptcies. "I became homeless and our entire family has had to live with a friend several times," wrote a patient in a recent study excerpted in Duke Health. Other patients noted they went without groceries to pay for medicines. Even if you don't go bankrupt, paying for cancer treatment or other bills that stretch or exceed your insurance can be devastating—not just financially, but emotionally. Wrote another patient, "My parents pay my medical bills, which is humiliating when I worked 27 years as a teacher."

But it doesn't have to be that way. If indie bands and renegade crafters can turn to their tribes for financial support with sites like Kickstarter, why can't people in dire need of health care do the same? They can.

"To us, it seems crazy that people happily give money at weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, but when loved ones get sick—when they really need the money the most—friends don't really think of sending them money," explains Ethan Austin, one of the founders of GiveForward. More than $5 million has been raised to pay for things like chemotherapy, organ transplants, accident recovery and rehabilitative care through his site so far.

But for this idea to actually take off we need more than a website. We have to break a few taboos about asking for help, discussing money, and sharing about medical conditions openly.

"What we have discovered in the past three years is that people want to help when friends get sick," Austin tells GOOD. "They often don't know how to offer that help because it's awkward. Offering money unsolicited can be seen as patronizing, asking for it can make a vulnerable convalescing patient feel even more pitiable and desperate. It's a sad puzzle.

"We want to change the culture around coping with illness," Austin explains, kind of how Groupon changed the culture of coupons. "Using a coupon at a restaurant is no longer taboo. Sending money to a loved one battling cancer shouldn't be taboo either."

It's no great discovery that social support circles can aid in coping. Carepages has allowed friends and acquaintances to far more easily share and receive information on ill loved ones, but there's no donate option. That's a lost opportunity.

So now, a friend or relative of a medical patient can start a GiveForward page that lets people make secure donations. Technically, it's no different than Kickstarter. CauseVox, another general-purpose crowdfunding platform, has been used for medical expenses. In fact, the single-day record for that site didn't come from a nonprofit plea, but an alarming medical emergency. Friends raised $25,680 in a day after an entrepreneur was stabbed in a freak incident and needed funds to pay for his intensive care treatment. Take that as a testament to the impulse to give for medical expenses.

If you ever want a sense of how badly insurance reform is needed, consider this: Most users of GiveForward have insurance. The number one cause of medical bankruptcies is high treatment costs that frequently go beyond insurance, or where even the co-pays are too high to handle. Lost income is the next biggest factor. GiveForward is just one way to help bridge the gap between coverage and catastrophe. For instance, the average cost of care for breast cancer is around $450,000 Austin says. If you have a a 10 percent co-pay, that's $45,000 out-of-pocket. "And that doesn't even begin to cover the travel expenses to the hospital, meals while traveling, gas, extra day care costs to watch the kids," Austin points out.

According to Austin, "about 60 percent of beneficiaries [on GiveForward] are fighting cancer. The other 40 percent is made up of accidents, organ transplants, rare diseases, and even things like purchasing iPads for autistic children," which helps them communicate. The average donation size on the site is $83. People typically raise between $1,000 - $10,000 but some have topped $50,000 and even $88,000 in one case. That page went viral on Facebook, topping out the fundraising impact of another page that was featured on the CBS Evening News, revealing the power of social networks and the premium donors place on being asked to give by someone they know.

Anyone can give, but typically it's friends and family. The same circle that would normally line up to bring chicken soup or sit by your bedside as pleasant company to help pass the empty hours of bedrest, yet might not feel comfortable leaving a check on the bed stand on the way out.

GiveForward charges a 7 percent fee, which sounds steep, but it's about the industry standard. Still, it'll be nice when this market expands enough to drive the fees down. Credit card fees alone run about 2-3 percent, and the net 4-5 percent goes to overhead. For reference, Kickstarter charges a 5 percent fee and processes payments using Amazon, which tacks on another 2-3 percent.

"We've also seen instances where beneficiaries who have recovered from their illness 'pay it forward' by starting a [GiveForward] page a year or two later for someone else who is sick." Kim Shinner started this page for her friend with cancer, a year after Kim's friends started a page for her. Is that a sign that this is habit-forming? Probably no more than any act of generosity. But GiveForward and other medical crowd-funding tools make it a little easier to let our natural impulse to help overcome our awkwardness about medical conditions and financial need. Let's hope this becomes standard practice.

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