Rising health care costs over the last decade have led to a boom in Americans crowdfunding for their medical expenses, according to data published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA).
“I personally think these kinds of platforms have just shown how bad the situation is,” Suveen Angraal, a second-year resident physician at the University of Missouri and one of the co-authors of the report, told Yahoo Finance. “This more reflects the ongoing problem with the cost of health care than revealing a new issue that the cost is rising.”
The JAMA research found that between May 2010 and December 2018, 26.7% of the 1,056,455 fundraisers on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe were for health-related costs. And those health-related campaigns sought a collective total of nearly $10.3 billion and raised about $3.7 billion.
In 2010, the U.S. spent $2.6 trillion on health care. In 2018, the overall cost had soared to $3.6 trillion. And during that same time period, tens of thousands of Americans turned to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe to raise money for their medical bills.
"It is an absolute moral outrage that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, our people are forced to hold online fundraisers amounting to billions of dollars just to get the medical care they need to stay alive,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an outspoken critic of the current U.S. health care system, said in a statement to Yahoo Finance when asked about the findings. “The time is long overdue for America to join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care as a human right for all."
In a statement to Yahoo Finance, GoFundMe also stressed the need for “affordable access to comprehensive health care.”
“While GoFundMe can provide timely, critical help to people facing health care crisis, we do not aim to be a substitute social safety net,” the company stated. “A fundraising platform can not and should not be a solution to complex, systemic problems that must be solved with meaningful public policy ... action must be taken at the local, state, and federal levels of government to make this a reality for all Americans. But in the meantime, we will continue to work hard to provide a place where Americans can help one another during times of need.”
Billions of dollars sought
Angraal highlighted the sheer growth in the number of the fundraisers related to medical debt.
In 2010, there were just 42 health care-related campaigns on GoFundMe, seeking a collective total of $717,125. But in 2018, that number shot up to 119,373 fundraisers seeking more than $4.6 billion.
According to the study, cancer was the most common medical condition that funding was sought for.
“Cancer therapy is expensive, and out-of-pocket costs for newly diagnosed patients with cancer frequently represent 23% to 63% of their household income,” the report stated. “Our study suggests that many patients are using online fundraisers to cope with the high financial burden due to cancer.”
Trauma/injury was the second-most common medical condition for which funding was sought. Unexpected medical costs can incur high bills — the average emergency room visit charge is approximately $600, though surprise medical billing can lead to much higher costs.
‘Not everyone is successful in raising enough money’
The increased reliance on crowdfunding medical bills can cause problems down the road.
A 2019 survey from the NORC at the University of Chicago found that 20% of Americans have either contributed to a health care-related crowdfunding campaign or reported someone in their household who has.
But given that not all of the health-related GoFundMe campaigns between May 2010 and December 2018 were successful, what happens when the funds are not raised?
“We don’t really know what people do when they don’t meet their campaign goals,” Susan Cahn, senior research scientist at NORC, a non-partisan research institution at the University of Chicago, told Yahoo Finance. “We don’t know if they succeed in getting additional financial assistance, for example, from the hospital or maybe from another local group. What’s so interesting about crowdfunding is that it enables you to reach a much broader group of individuals.”
Furthermore, the question arises: What would Americans burdened with medical debt do if crowdfunding sites weren’t around at all?
“The thing if these platforms don’t exist, we’ll just see more people having a difficult time covering their health care costs, and it’s still the case,” Angraal said. “Even with these online fundraising platforms, not everyone is successful in raising enough money to pay for their bills.”
Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.