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Fundraising to pay the medical bills

Websites help patients attract attention and ask for donations
Published 9:19 am, Wednesday, March 20, 2013
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Since June 2012, this has been Farmington attorney Kristen Garlans' life: her boss died, which eventually resulted in her losing her job; a drunk driver killed a close friend; and a beloved aunt died.

And then a nagging health concern turned out to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Without a job, Garlans, 33, qualified for Medicaid. She's still waiting to hear about supplemental security income. Meanwhile, she's received notice that she could lose her house to foreclosure, and while she finishes her multiple rounds of chemo and follows up with radiation, she can't work. So Garlans did some research and opened a fundraising Web page on Standbuy, a cancer-specific website, to help with her living expenses. As she wrote on her Web page: "I worked hard to get where I was before diagnosis, but winning the cancer lottery has put all that in jeopardy." Websites like Standbuy are the modern-day version of donation jars. Other crowd-funding websites such as GoFundMe, GiveForward and FundRazr allow donors to give funds directly to pay for medical operations, or to help pay travel expenses for families whose loved ones are being treated far from home.

Just in Connecticut, donors can visit websites and help defray the treatment costs of a 4-year-old whose vision is being affected by a rare tumor, a 29-year-old mother of two with stage 4 colon cancer, as well as give money needed to train a service dog for a 32-year- old woman with multiple sclerosis.

That donors are willing to help strangers is a beautiful thing, but there is something disquieting about relying on fundraising to pay for much-needed medical procedures. That medically vulnerable families are pushed to the brink and find themselves competing with one another for online largesse is not a health care system, but a free-for-all.

You can't fault families for trying. You can wonder how we got here.

Can insurance companies add any more to their bottom line by increasing premiums or raising deductibles? Can companies insure less and less of their employees and their families? Skim through the web pages and decide who to help. And remember: A particularly well-designed Web page should never mean the difference between life and death.

Yet such websites are quickly becoming a big part of the charitable giving landscape, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Crowdsourcing.org, a market watcher, keeps track of roughly 2,000 such sites. A 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research said that half of Americans could not afford as little as $2,000 for an emergency. The average medical fundraiser on GiveForward yields about $3,000, but the company's CEO said some fundraisers have brought in $300,000.

Last year, GoFundMe helped raise some $6 million for medical causes, or about 17 percent of its overall donations, but what makes one site more appealing than another?

Garlans, who is looking to raise $40,000, said she and her parents have been blunt about her potential for success. "It sounds bad, but I'm not very compelling," she said. "I'm not a cute baby. I don't have kids to take care of. I'm just a regular person." She's one determined regular person. Her most recent bout of chemo knocked her flat, but she plans, upon coming out on the other side of cancer, to get back into her law practice, and work with cancer patients, perhaps helping people navigate the complexities of Obamacare.

"I'm not sitting here feeling sorry for myself," Garlans said. "So many good things have come from this. I've met awesome people, and I've seen the kindness of strangers. The finances are a nightmare but I know one way or another, things are going to work out."

This column was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).

Susan Campbell is a former columnist at the Hartford Courant and is now communications/development director at Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based non-profit. She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.