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To pay medical bills, some go online — but it’s not for everyone

Half of adults polled in a 2011 study said they could not pay $2,000 in a medical emergency.

Herald-Palladium via Associated Press

Half of adults polled in a 2011 study said they could not pay $2,000 in a medical emergency.

Even with lung cancer, there are moments when 32-year-old Chip Kennett feels blessed. Over two weeks in April, those moments were many, as 325 friends and relatives contributed $56,800 via the Internet to help defray his out-of-pocket medical costs.

Kennett’s wife, Sheila, says she was overwhelmed by the generosity. We ‘‘kept saying how lucky we were!’’ she wrote in her blog, Team Kennett. ‘‘Now just how messed up is that?’’

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The Alexandria, Va., family is one of thousands turning to the Internet to pay medical bills. Sites that host these campaigns operate much like business fund-raising sites such as Kickstarter. It takes only a few keystrokes to set up a Web page where a family can tell its story and state a fund-raising goal; later, they can spread the word on social-media sites like Facebook. Donations can be made with credit cards or via PayPal.

The contributions, some anonymous, range from as little as $5 to $1,000 or more. In the Kennetts’ case, donations ranged from $10 to $2,000. Most of the sites are for-profit and charge a fee of 3 to 12 percent of the money donated. GiveForward, the site the Kennetts used, charges 7 percent.

The Kennetts acknowledge they are lucky to have good insurance. Even so, they have paid thousands of dollars for out-of-pocket expenses, including co-pays and a $5,000 annual deductible ($7,000 for out-of-network doctors) for both 2012 and 2013. They also face large bills for their share of medication costs, including $485 a month for a blood-thinning injection that Chip, who works for a defense company, needs daily and $480 a month for a bone-strengthening injection.

There are also travel expenses for Chip’s overnight trips to Philadelphia, often weekly, where he is enrolled in a clinical trial. Since Sheila accompanies him, there’s the extra cost of child care for Joe, 3, and Crosby, 7 months.

The Internet fund-raiser has helped with the bills. But perhaps more significant, it has boosted morale.

‘‘I could be having a bad day and be really down,’’ says Chip, who was caught off guard by his diagnosis since he had not been a smoker. ‘‘I’d go check the website. It was inspiring to check the dollar figure and the notes from friends. I’d find new notes from friends I hadn’t talked to forever. It provided emotional comfort that was extremely uplifting.’’

Medical fund-raising sites are growing in number and profitability. In the first 12 months after it was launched in 2008, GiveForward raised $225,000 for 359 campaigns; this year, it has raised more than $20 million for more than 15,000. Company officials said GiveForward had more than $1.4 million in revenue in 2012 and has raised more than $47 million since it began.

Other sites have sprung up, including GoFundMe.com, YouCaring.com, FundRazr.com, and Indiegogo.com. Unlike GiveForward, they also raise money for tuition, travel, disaster relief, pets’ care, and funerals.

Some medical institutions and associations are joining in. The nonprofit Rare Genomics Institute, for example, was created two years ago to help raise money to sequence genes of patients with rare genetic diseases, which costs about $10,000 and is rarely covered by insurance.

GiveForward once raised money for other causes — ‘‘scholarships, art projects, whatever,’’ says cofounder Ethan Austin. But the ‘‘hugbacks’’ — calls or messages from users — from medical fund-raisers were so appreciative that ‘‘we decided, why do anything else?”

Crowd-funding for medical costs, supporters say, is fast and efficient. Still, it may not be for every patient.

‘‘People think the money magically flows in, but it doesn’t happen like that,’’ says Jimmy Lin, president of the Rare Genomics Institute. The institute has raised more than $300,000 for 30 projects.

‘‘There is a lot of work involved. Putting up a page is just the beginning. Families need photos and personalized stories to help people connect, they need to think about how to leverage the people they know to raise funds, and they need to use social media to stimulate support.’’

‘‘It’s not intuitive,’’ Austin says. ‘‘You can’t just send out a mass e-mail and be done with it.’’

There’s a sophisticated strategy, he explains, including asking close friends and relatives to contribute first. They are more likely to make a larger donation, say $50 to $100, prompting others who follow to make similarly sized contributions.

‘‘It’s the law of ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ ” Austin says. Persistence is also required. ‘‘If you stop asking, you won’t keep getting donations.’’

Fund-raisers looking for a quick influx of funds may be surprised. Although some sites pass on the money, minus fees, as soon as a donation is made, several hold all donations until the fund-raiser is over. (An end date is usually set for each campaign.) In some instances, no money is turned over if the goal stated at the outset is not met. In that case, contributions are credited back to the donors.

There are privacy issues, too. An Illinois writer became concerned after friends created a fund-raiser to help cover the costs of her chronic illness. Prospective employers, she worried, might stumble on the site while searching for her name. She believes this is why she didn’t get a job she applied for.

‘‘I don’t mind if they know I’m sick, but I don’t want them to think I’m so sick they can’t hire me,’’ says the writer, who declined to be named for this article. ‘‘I found the whole process humiliating and would have preferred for people to donate privately.”

For people on Medicaid or other programs that serve only people who are low on assets and income, there may be financial consequences. Donated funds could affect a person’s eligibility for assistance, so it would be wise to check with the appropriate officials.

For donors, too, there are drawbacks. Most such contributions are not tax-deductible since virtually all the campaigns are being staged by people, not nonprofit organizations.

Perhaps more important, there’s the issue of accountability. Donors have no control over how the money is spent, notes Tony Dale, founder of Karis Group, an Austin firm that provides patient advocacy services.

And because crowd-funding sites do not verify the legitimacy of every fund-raiser, there is room for fraud. Crowd-funding executives say that’s rare, adding that they rely on users to police the sites and report suspicious activity. Most sites caution donors to give only to people they know or to friends of friends.

The Kennetts are well aware of that concern, as Sheila joked in her blog: ‘‘We wonder if anyone would notice if Chip was suddenly driving a new car. . . . But we clearly jest. . . . Please, please know we respect your generosity so very much that we promise to use the funds exactly as intended and will do our best to make it stretch as far and long as possible.’’

The Kennetts say they were buoyed by all the support they got — from grade-school friends, parents and teachers at their son’s day care center, people they had worked with 10 years ago (as well as more current ones), even the nurse in the maternity ward where their daughter was born.

‘‘Not only was it therapeutic to rid our minds of this financial stress we were starting to come under, but it also was just downright fun watching names pop up,’’ Sheila wrote on her blog. ‘‘It was a trip down memory lane for us both. Some gave a little and some gave a lot, but the dollar amount didn’t matter. What mattered was that the reach was just so far and wide.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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