Last month, a letter from a clinic recommending a woman named Hedda fundraise $10,000 for a heart transplant went viral on Twitter. Hedda, who needed a new heart, was deemed ineligible for the procedure because she lacked the “secure financial plan” needed to pay for immunosuppression medication — drugs that keep the body from rejecting a foreign organ.
Insurance groups are recommending GoFundMe as official policy - where customers can die if they can’t raise the goal in time - but sure, single payer healthcare is unreasonable.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) November 24, 2018
The fact that people need to crowdfund medical care is nothing new. But in the letter, Spectrum Health said the quiet part loud, drawing more attention to the inadequacies of healthcare in the United States. Ironically, the attendant outrage mobilized people to contribute money to help Hedda. At the time of writing, her GoFundMe page has beaten its $20,000 goal, raising more than $30,000.
Crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe are the nexus of a particularly American failure. One tragedy collides head on with another, and if the wreck causes enough people to turn their heads, maybe they will pay for it to go away. Consider Anthony Borges, a student who was shot multiple times at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February. More than 25,000 people have donated nearly one million dollars to Anthony's family's campaign to pay for his medical expenses and recovery.
In going viral, Anthony and Hedda are both outliers. For all the other banal tragedies not worthy of media attention — your basic cancers, transplants, and surgeries — GoFundMe is probably a last resort, but likely is not a lasting solution.
To get a better picture of the crowdfunding ecosystem, The Outline collected data on nearly 2,000 medical campaigns from the browse page on GoFundMe’s website. GoFundMe claims to have hosted over 2.5 million campaigns, so this isn't necessarily a representative sample; the page where we collected the data seems to be curated to highlight campaigns that have already generated a lot of interest (the smallest amount a campaign in the sample had raised was $25,000). GoFundMe did not respond to a request for comment.
According to this sample, Spectrum Health’s $10,000 fundraising recommendation seems, well, tame. In fact, the gap between what insurance covers and what medical bills cost — where crowdfunding usually comes in to play — is larger than what you might expect: of the 1,769 medical campaigns we analyzed, the median fundraising goal was $50,000.
For many, successfully raising money through GoFundMe is the difference between life and death. Of the 1,769 medical campaigns, 781 were for cancer treatment expenses. Another 108 aimed to procure funds for an organ transplant. Car accidents, falls, gunshot wounds, the flu; it’s all got a price tag. Cumulatively, the medical GoFundMe campaigns had a fundraising goal of almost 140 million dollars. Over 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 expense; how else could one deal with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills?
To the extent that crowdfunding is even a solution to prohibitively expensive medical treatments, GoFundMe campaigns likely don’t even capture the people most in need of assistance. Obvious institutional barriers — a computer, internet access — can prevent people from crowdfunding, and there’s also the matter of having a social network that can and will help, unless your campaign happens to go viral. In the American healthcare system, spectacle might be the best insurance.