In the fall of 2018, Vivian* went to her doctor for a standard checkup. She had been feeling more fatigued than usual and her appetite was absent more often than not. Initially, she thought she had just been overworking herself as a single mother raising twin boys in middle school. She had been prepared for a stern lecture on resting more, drinking more water, etc. Instead, she received news that would change the course of her life: Vivian had cancer.
When Vivan asked about treatment options, she discovered that her insurance would only cover part of her therapy, leaving her with an impossible bill of more than $46,000, which she had no way of covering with her income as a food delivery driver. By the time she underwent chemotherapy, she had exhausted all possible payment options to cover her medical treatment herself. So, in a moment of desperation and exhaustion, she, encouraged by a friend, started a GoFundMe page for help—and she was able to raise enough to cover the bill in three months.
“I didn’t realize crowdfunding was an option until I needed it,” says Vivian. “I was scared and stressed that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to get treatment, on top of missing work and needing childcare. I had never asked for money online before and didn’t know where else to turn. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had my GoFundMe.”
Vivian’s story, while undeniably sad, is one of millions that live on the internet today. According to a survey done by The CommonWealth Fund, there are over 79 million Americans who are currently in medical debt, including 41 percent of working adults.
And many, like Vivian, have found the internet to be their saving grace when all other roads lead to dead ends. In recent years, the internet has become a viable source of assistance to those struggling to afford medical help. A study conducted by NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago says an estimated 8 million Americans had started a crowdfunding campaign for themselves or someone in their household, and more than 12 million Americans had started a campaign for someone else.
It doesn’t come as entirely new news that the American health-care system has become wildly unmanageable, even pre-pandemic, but it doesn’t make it less of a nightmarish reality for millions of Americans—one that’s only getting worse. According to statistics from the Health Affairs Journal, health-care costs have risen for both individuals and families. The average monthly health insurance premium for a family increased from $369 in 2008 to $1,021 in 2017. Health insurance costs are expected to rise another 5.6 percent by 2025.
Of course, that doesn’t include the number of Americans (27.9 million, according to United States Census Bureau) who don’t have insurance to start with. Beyond that, medical billing has become so difficult to navigate that people are habitually overpaying for treatment or refusing ambulance rides because of cost. There are endless complications to getting proper health care in America that financial barriers only seem to scrape the surface.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only caused both the number of Americans dealing with medical bills and crowdfunding campaigns to rise, as the pandemic robbed over 5.4 million Americans of their health insurance between February and May. The economic strain of the pandemic prompted GoFundMe to create its own “coronavirus” category for individuals seeking financial assistance.
Akilah Hughes—host of Crooked Media’s What a Day podcast—was a freelance comedian whose GoFundMe circulated on the internet in the aftermath of her Lyme disease diagnosis. But Hughes struggled with reaching out to others for financial assistance, despite the surging popularity of crowdfunding.
“It was incredibly difficult to ask for money online. I was raised to be very independent and asking for money for any reason was sort of seen as needy or desperate or some other unsavory adjective,” says Hughes. “But I realized that without adequate health insurance, the cost of just the testing for giant benign tumors (one of the symptoms) was outside of my savings. I knew that I was either going to have to find a way to fund the surgery or let the tumors kill me.”
Hughes was fortunately able to raise the money, like so many others who were able to depend on the kindness of the internet. In January 2019, GoFundMe’s CEO made the statement that “one-third of all donations on the popular fundraising site GoFundMe goes towards health-care costs.” In the same study NORC conducted about crowdsourcing, they also found that 35 percent of donors sent money to someone they did not know personally.
One-third of all donations on the popular fundraising site GoFundMe goes towards health-care costs.
“What was surprising [to me] was that the internet didn’t really chide me for asking for help. They were ready and eager to help. And that was a relief, because I don’t know that I had the emotional capacity to deal with putting my dreams on hold, coming to terms with my morality, and being mocked for not being rich,” says Hughes.
It’s a double-edged sword that crowdfunding has become a viable option for so many Americans. On the bright side, it means humanity has prevailed long enough for friends and strangers to come together and support those in financial distress. For all the bad parts of the internet, crowdfunding has proven that simple kindness can still be found here. But on the other side of the coin, it also means that medical help has become so commonly inaccessible that there are many articles detailing how to do such crowdsourcing quickly and efficiently for emergency medical bills.
The bottom line is that while crowdfunding is undoubtedly a lifeline to many, it remains a band-aid solution to the greater problem at hand. The American health-care system is overdue for a serious reform, one that doesn’t exclude a good portion of the population based on their income level. The growing financial impossibility of medical help is swaying a good portion of Americans to be in favor of universal healthcare, but it remains up in the air for when America will be joining the rest of the developed world in helping constituents get medical coverage.
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