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As medical costs overwhelm, more people turn to crowdfunding sites for help

The Granek family

In celebration of her 40th birthday in October 2015, Jennifer and Brian Granek embarked on an adventure-filled trip to Costa Rica. It was the tropical trip they dreamed of, until Jennifer was involved in a horrific accident. “We were riding ATVs and hers went off the side of the trail and fell six to eight feet,” Brian Granek told Yahoo Finance. “She was wearing a helmet, but suffered a traumatic brain injury.”

Before the accident, Jennifer was a vibrant and competitive triathlete. After, the mother of three was fighting for her life and unable to walk or talk. Due to the severity of her situation, the couple spent a month in Costa Rica until Jennifer was stable enough to fly back to the US. On the flight home she would need special medical support, and Brian spent many of those early days arguing with their insurance company over who was obligated to pay for Jennifer’s transportation back to their hometown of Baltimore. Seeing their struggle, a family friend started a campaign on GiveForward, a crowdfunding site designed to raise money for people going through a health setback. The goal was to pull together enough money to get Jennifer home.

Within 48 hours, the GiveForward page raised $100,000.

“I was dealing with everything, so I wasn’t watching the total rise,” said Brian. “To see how the community rallied around Jennifer was absolutely amazing.”

From funding cancer treatments to helping a family with a sick child, medically-inspired crowdfunding campaigns are gaining in popularity. In fact, GoFundMe, one of the more popular crowdfunding sites, says medical campaigns remain one of their biggest categories and continue to grow year after year. YouCaring says that medical campaigns were their fastest growing category in 2015, raising more than $240 million since 2012.

One explanation for the increase could be the complexities – and deficiencies – of health insurance. Even after the push made by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to mandate coverage and made subsidies available to many consumers, it’s estimated that 29 million Americans are still uninsured. 

Come of the active campaigns on GiveForward.

Even so, uninsured people aren’t the only ones turning to crowdfunding to seek help paying medical bills. In 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that Americans paid $338 billion in out-of-pocket medical expenses like deductibles, co-pays, and other spending. Which means even those with coverage may have to seek out other avenues to pay their medical bills.

Since launching in 2008, GiveForward has helped users raise more than $136 million through medical campaigns. When it comes to fees, GiveForward and GoFundMe both charge  7.9% plus 30 cents per donation, which can be paid for by the donor and is used to process payments and cover overhead. On GiveForward, organizers can set up fundraisers for everything from education to home repairs. Still, most people use the site to help others going through health setbacks, with nearly 70% of campaigns falling under the medical category.

“Everyone at GiveForward works here because we love the mission,” said GiveForward CEO Josh Chapman. “We get to watch thousands of people receive the support they need when they’re going through a difficult life event.”

Impact of ACA repeal on medical crowdfunding

Despite receiving its fair share of criticism, the Affordable Care Act has changed the way we approach healthcare. Under the ACA, patients can’t be denied insurance based on a pre-existing condition or charged more based on their gender. In addition, patients also gain access to tests, screenings and other services that can help detect illnesses like colorectal and breast cancer. The Trump administration has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, as it’s known, which according to a report by the Urban Institute, could leave up to 30 million people uninsured. The uncertainty could mean even more need for consumers to rely on do-it-yourself fundraising through sites like GiveForward, GoFundMe, YouCaring, and Generosity.

“I think it goes back to a bigger question of healthcare in our country. Even with the Affordable Care Act, there was still a need for improvements,” Chapman said. “If there is a repeal, we know people will lose the insurance they have and we would expect to see an increase in medical campaigns.”

In addition to medical bills, Chapman says many of the campaigns on GiveForward also focus on the small but important things that fall by the wayside when someone is sick — like lost wages, child care and transportation.

The Graneks celebrating Jennifer’s birthday in 2016.

In the case of the Graneks, their insurance company ultimately ponied up the cash to transport Jennifer back to Baltimore, and agreed to pay for her care at an inpatient hosptial where she receives physical, occupational and speech therapy. This allowed Brian Granek to save the money raised for her ongoing care, renovations to make their home wheelchair-accessible and costs associated with caring for their three young children without Jennifer by his side.

Then last November, the Graneks suffered another financial blow. The insurance company decided to discharge Jennifer from the Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, saying that she no longer needed rehabilitation.

“They were grouping her with a nursing home patient, who just needed custodial care,” said Brian. “But she is a healing rehabilitation patient, and all of her doctors and therapists agree that she needs to be in a facility that can help her make improvements.”

Without insurance, the family would have to pay $25,000 a month to keep Jennifer in the hospital, an amount that would be impossible to afford even on Granek’s eye doctor salary. In response, he started another GiveForward campaign to pay for Jennifer to stay in the hospital while he issued an appeal to the Maryland Insurance Administration. In January, Brian signed Jennifer up for Medicaid, so the hospital is taking care of her until they know exactly what will be covered. In the meantime, the money raised by GiveForward is waiting to be put to good use, either to pay for Jennifer’s medical bills or to help finance alternative treatments like deep brain stimulation. Either way, Brian continues to fight for his wife, and is comforted by the community of people rallying behind his family. 

“I’ve been emotionally overwhelmed by the support and generosity of friends, family and strangers,” he says. “Especially at a time when I feel completely abandoned by the people who are supposed to be helping to pay her healthcare.”

Brittany is a writer at Yahoo Finance.