Getting By With GoFundMe

By on April 11, 2018

The price of relying on healthcare crowdfunding campaigns to pay hospital bills

A screenshot of pro-skier Bryce Newcomb’s campaign, which has drawn almost 120K in donations.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The response to a pro-skier’s recent accident and subsequent head injury highlights the kindness of a community. It also underscores how reliant Americans have become on the generosity of strangers to fund their healthcare costs.

On March 27, Bryce Newcomb was on Cody Peak when a cornice broke beneath him, propelling him 1,000 feet down the rocky face.

The skier was rescued by Teton County Search and Rescue and transported via short-haul helicopter to an ambulance that delivered him to St. John’s Medical Center. From there he was airlifted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center where he has remained in the intensive care unit. He is in stable critical condition, which means he’s in a coma, but breathing on his own, his step-brother Ben Verge told Planet Jackson Hole.

Newcomb suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), with multiple shearing injuries in several layers of his brain. The accident also left Newcomb with a mountain of bills. While his health insurance will cover some of the costs, it will not be enough.

There’s a long road ahead for Newcomb, one with a minimum of several months to several years of recovery and inpatient rehabilitation centers. “How these types of injuries go, they take years to recover from,” Verge said. “Even when he gets back it’s still really hard for someone with a TBI to reintegrate to society.”

Friends of Newcomb took to social media to raise money. They started a GoFundMe account, a popular online crowdfunding website, and set an optimistic goal of $100,000. Donations poured in from the Jackson community, Newcomb’s hometown of Ketchum, Idaho, and from strangers around the world. As of press time, the campaign had exceeded that goal by almost $20,000.

Kevin Gregory, a friend of Newcomb’s, said knowing the fundraisers are there have been a relief for his family, “but as far as total medical bills it’s going to be a drop in the bucket.”

Social crowdfunding campaigns have indeed become a common tool Americans use on the heels of major accidents or unexpected illness. But they help mask a larger problem. “I think it’s pretty clear we have a health care system that is flawed,” Gregory said. “Even someone who has health insurance is stuck without total coverage.”

On Friday, more than 600 people came and went through the Elks Lodge for “Have a Bryce Day,” a fundraiser for Newcomb. Friends swapped stories, celebrated a hopeful recovery and commended the supportive community that came out.

“He would’ve loved it,” Gregory said, choking back tears. “He would’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a testament to the community we live in. At the worst of times, you see the best in people.”

A Little Help From… Everyone

The majority of campaigns at GoFundMe are health-related, according to an article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Julia Sisler. Bake sales, car washes and spaghetti dinners were once the go-to option when someone got sick or an emergency required extra funds. But in an increasingly interconnected world, online crowdfunding sites have been able to deepen the pool and raise more funds than ever possible.

That extra-wide safety net has become even more important as healthcare costs rise and health insurance plans fall flat.

Dr. Bruce Hayse said a lot of the patients he sees at his practice in Jackson are uninsured. “It’s certainly better than it was before Obamacare,” he said. “But there are still many that aren’t covered.”

The uninsured rate in Wyoming sat at 9 percent in 2016, about 55,000 people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The number is even higher for adults who live in poverty—24 percent. That sector was put at more risk when Wyoming rejected Medicaid expansion, a measure it has consistently voted against for four years. The refusal to expand it leaves about 6,000 Wyomingites in a coverage gap with no insurance and another 20,000 people ineligible for Medicaid.

The uninsured or underinsured also usually lack the ability to start and successfully campaign a GoFundMe. “People who are the most in need are the least likely to be able to utilize it in any effective fashion,” Hayse said. “They often don’t have a large enough group of social contacts.”

Hayse said the uninsured also hurt everyone within the system. People will put off routine checkups and come in either when it’s too late or when something simple has escalated into an emergency. Society as a whole ends up paying for that,” he said.

This is true in Jackson. St. John’s Medical Center, where Hayse serves as a board member, is run as a community hospital. That means that people in the community end up paying for people who can’t pay for themselves. Jackson has been notorious in the fact we have a lot of young people who engage in risky behaviors who don’t have insurance,” he said.

But even those with insurance can’t always make ends meet. The Affordable Care Act has helped, Hayse stressed, but there are still a lot of associated expenses, especially in an emergency situation. “Depending on which plan you have you may end up still paying a significant percentage,” he said.

Major medical problems and their associated costs have a severe impact on people’s lives.

“Every other country has some sort

of medical safety net

and we don’t.”

In a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times, 63 percent of insured Americans said they used up all their savings because of medical bills. And the bills didn’t come from just routine healthcare costs. Seventy-five percent said the insurance copays, deductibles and coinsurance were more than they could afford out of pocket.

The $100,000 Newcomb’s campaign has raised is impressive. But “if [Bryce] didn’t have insurance that wouldn’t make a dent,” Hayse said.

One in five working-age people with insurance have medical bill problems, but the number is even higher for the uninsured at 50 percent, according to the poll.

The Wyoming Blues

A Blue Cross Blue Shield Wyoming 2018 informational packet—the only provider of health insurance on the federal marketplace in Wyoming—shows a picture of a young boy running through a playground. “Live fearless,” it reads. Inside, the cost of fearlessness is outlined.

Each plan—gold, silver and bronze—detail the smaller plans within: classic, core, value, health plus, balance. Each has its own range of deductibles, coinsurance costs, primary care and preventative care outlines.

The “cheapest” plan, bronze balance, carries a separate deductible for professional and hospital services. The professional deductible is $3,500 and the hospital deductible is $7,000. A footnote says an emergency room visit could count toward the hospital visit only after a $1,500 copay. An out-of-network participant deductible is $20,000.

When the Affordable Care Act became law, it abolished annual insurance payouts and lifetime maximums. That means a person with the bronze balance plan has an out-of-pocket maximum of $7,350 including deductibles, coinsurance and copays. But that doesn’t include out-of-network facilities, where there is no maximum.

The “best” plan on the market, gold classic, has a participant deductible of $750. But the out-of-pocket maximums remain the same. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that in 2018 the average benchmark premium was $865, a $361 jump from the previous year.

Natty Hagood was skiing through trees last year when a branch pierced through his face, leaving pieces of it embedded in his lip and chin. He went to a clinic, which referred him to the emergency room that lined up an operating room with a plastic surgeon to remove the branch.

Hagood is among the 24,000 people in Wyoming who has insurance through the federal marketplace. But he couldn’t pay his $1,500 deductible so he launched a GoFundMe campaign. I was able to pay my deductible and not be financially burdened by this accident,” he said.

But his GoFundMe sparked an internet attack. A dozen commenters berated him for creating the page. Some said the fact that he could go skiing meant he could pay for his own bills. Others said he should be a “responsible adult” and pay for his own mistakes.

The only bad part was the way people treated me for my decision to ask for help with the cost of the medical bills,” he said. “We shouldn’t belittle people for saying, ‘I need help.’”

Not all of the feedback was negative, though.

“I think the bigger problem with America is that it costs $1,000 to pull a stick out of someone’s face,” one commenter said.

Just because there’s a need for crowdfunding to supplement health costs doesn’t mean it’s a solution, Hayse said. People assume it makes up for the lack of affordable insurance options in Wyoming. “If anyone has a real problem they think everyone will step up and contribute. It gives you a misleading perspective.”

It also perpetuates a broken system. “It’s good in the sense that it does help a lot of people out, but at the same time it diverts attention and focus away from what really needs to be done, which is provide better medical care for society as a whole,” Hayse said. “Every other country has some sort of medical safety net and we don’t.”

About Erika Dahlby

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