Crushed by medical bills, many Americans go online to beg for help

By Megan Cerullo

/ MoneyWatch

Tips for driving down medical bills

One-year-old twins Adelaide and Gray Carter were recently diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that is usually fatal — the treatment costs: $750,000 per child. To cope with that financial burden, their parents are seeking help from the same place used by thousands of other Americans facing crushing medical expenses: the internet.

The children's father, Jarod Carter, has started a GoFundMe page that to date has raised more than $103,000. He is by no means alone. Roughly 250,00 campaigns for dealing with health care costs have been set up on the online fundraising platform, raising total contributions of $650 million — fully a third of all donations made through the site, according to CEO Rob Solomon.

"When we started in 2010, it wasn't purposefully set up and built to be a substitute for medical insurance," Solomon told CBS MoneyWatch. "We weren't ever set up to be a health care company and we still are not. But over time, people have used GoFundMe for the most important issues they are faced with."

One-year-old twins Adelaide and Gray Carter, who both have a potentially fatal neurosmuscular disease. Their parents have used GoFundMe to raise money to help pay for their medical care and related expenses. Jarod Carter

Health coverage has eroded since 2017, with 7 million more Americans becoming uninsured since President Donald Trump took office, according to recent Gallup data. The national uninsured rate stands at 13.7 percent, a four-year high, according to the report.

Pages of sick people

Just a few of the many thousands of other GoFundMe pages set up to help people raise money to deal with health care issues:

Why do hospital bills get so expensive?

While many pages on the site are for people who lack health insurance, others have coverage but still face major costs. Carter, a 40-year-old physical therapist with his own practice in Austin, Texas, said the family's insurer, Aetna, "has been really great to us." But the ancillary expenses of looking after his children are heavy.

"Now our son is on a ventilator, and for both of them they have a higher likelihood — if they get a cold or flu or anything at all — of needing to go to the hospital. So even getting really good cleaning materials is an expense."

"There are all these things we need to get to make sure these kids have the best chance of staying healthy," he added. "That is never going to be fully covered even if you have best insurance in the world."

"Take action"

GoFundMe helps people raise money for a range of purposes. Its millions of users create fundraisers that fall under categories including family, education, competition, creative, travel, faith and more.

"We have turned into this 'take action' button, whether it's related to the government shutdown or a family member who can't pay their medical bills — people want to help, and we actually solve big problems," Solomon said. "While we didn't set out to be one of the most influential health care companies in the world, if we have to serve that purpose, I feel very proud about that."

Are patients being misled as hospitals post medical costs required by federal rule?

Although many Americans still lack health insurance, the trend in raising money online to pay for medical costs isn't limited to the U.S. Medical fundraisers are also popular in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which have universal health care. Even when medical bills are covered, associated costs including lost wages, transportation and hotel bills can drain people's bank accounts.

"Medical-related fundraisers tend to be the largest category in any market," Solomon said. "Insurance may cover the medical payment side of it, but it doesn't cover you being out of work or needing transportation or lodging away from your home. So it is still a very big category in every market."

First published on January 28, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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