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Should You Hold a Medical Fundraiser?

Crowdfunding sometimes works, but it poses ethical, financial issues

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A Facebook post is helping 61-year-old Hedda Martin of Grand Rapids, Mich., pay for a heart transplant.

Last November, Martin was in need: Her heart was failing, but her hospital, Spectrum Health, told her she couldn't be placed on the transplant list without demonstrating that she had enough money to cover two years’ worth of immunosuppressive drugs. The hospital's advice, in a letter: Undertake a $10,000 fundraising campaign.

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Martin posted the hospital's letter on her Facebook page; others shared it with their own Facebook friends and Twitter followers, mostly in outrage over the denial of medical service. In the ensuing viral media outbreak, Martin's son launched a crowdfunding appeal, which secured more than $30,000.

While Martin's efforts may have paid off, her story exposes an unsettling reality of our health care system: Even with good insurance, your ability to pay can affect your treatment. And though many people try to raise money through online and social media efforts, not everyone may be able to rely on the kindness of others.

"Crowdfunding is not the instantaneous fundraising success story that is often portrayed in popular media,” says Nora Kenworthy, assistant professor of nursing and health studies at the University of Washington in Bothell. “Yes, there are plenty of examples of highly successful campaigns, and even marginal money raised through crowdfunding meets important financial needs for many people. But only about 10 percent of medical crowdfunding campaigns meet their financial goals.”

Kenworthy studied 200 such campaigns on GoFundMe, a website that facilitates crowdfunding. Those campaigns raised an average of 40 percent of requested funds; one-tenth of them raised less than $100.

On its website, GoFundMe notes that the company has raised $5 billion from 50 million donors. Medical funding is a major category for the site; the service charges 2.9 percent to process payments plus 30 cents per donation. Other popular sites for medical crowdfunding include Fundly and Fundrazr.

But crowdfunding sets up new issues of “winners” and “losers” in the treatment game. According to Ford Vox, M.D., chair of the medical ethics committee at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, it helps to have rich friends: “The people who are able to succeed with a video campaign tend to be whiter and more social media savvy, and have a solid economic network surrounding them to help seal the deal."

Another issue: Questionable treatments may be attracting the most attention. Vox published a study that tracked crowdfunding for therapies that were unlikely to help or might be dangerous for sick people. The study cites hyperbaric therapy for brain injuries and homeopathic remedies for cancer as treatments whose cure rates are vanishingly small. Yet 1,000 such provocative campaigns attracted upward of $6.7 million on crowdfunding sites.

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If you start a crowdfunding campaign

Be aware that the funds raised may be considered income. A Medicaid recipient with a successful crowdfunding campaign might boost her income out of the earnings stratum that made her eligible for Medicaid. Crowdfunders often have friends or relatives launch the campaign for them, so the solicited funds are technically out of their control. But those who launch the campaign themselves should be sure to consult with a tax attorney.

“Crowdfunding most highly rewards those who can create a compelling story with a solvable problem,” says health studies professor Nora Kenworthy. If an ailment can be cured, it stands a better chance than a condition that requires indefinite treatment.

Don't count on success. In 2018, Katina Davis launched a GoFundMe campaign for her father, Charlie — a former exercise rider for Secretariat — who needed $30,000 for cancer treatments. She raised $17,000 in two weeks, but the campaign stalled and her dad died. Yet Davis maintains a positive feeling: “There were so many people willing to help."

Peter Moore is a former editor of Men's Health.

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