When Medical Bills Stack Up, Many Turn To Crowdsourcing Sites

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Lauren Carmen, who used crowdsourcing to help pay medical expenses from breast cancer and delivering premature twins.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Medical bills are the leading cause of U.S. bankruptcies. Even people with health insurance can take a huge financial hit if they get seriously ill in America today, leaving them financially ruined. So an increasing number of people are using crowdsourcing to get help. It’s a sign of the scale of the problem that over half of the campaigns on sites like GoFundMe or YouCaring involve an appeal for donations for surgery or complicated births or serious illnesses.

To understand why people end up turning to crowdsourcing, we’re joined now by Lauren Carman. In 2016, she gave birth to twins prematurely, who ended up in the ICU for many months at a hospital in San Francisco, hundreds of miles from her home. Then last August, Lauren was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, which has involved chemo and radiation treatments. And she’s on the line now from member station KQED.

Welcome to the program.

LAUREN CARMAN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh – I must ask you at first, how are you doing?

CARMAN: Today is a really good day. It’s been two weeks since my last chemo treatment, and I’m starting to feel better. And it’s really nice to be looking forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you can talk to us a little bit about the financial burden of what happened to your twins and also to you – you have health insurance. Right?

CARMAN: I do. I actually have excellent health insurance through my employer. But even with health insurance, you have co-pays that you don’t expect. You have transportation costs. You have childcare, too. All these things – you know, there are certain things that are only covered to 80 percent. And 20 percent of lab work really can add up when you have Type 1 diabetes and breast cancer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have Type 1 diabetes as well?

CARMAN: I do, for 26 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you started feeling like this was going to be difficult financially, how did it happen that you turned to crowdsourcing?

CARMAN: A really good friend of our family, Dixie Hall – she knew that we were going to be in trouble. I’m an elementary teacher. I teach at a Montessori school, and my husband’s a full-time student. And so I think she just kind of identified that this was going to be an issue, and so she began the campaign for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what was the response?

CARMAN: It was overwhelming. I just – I get emotional when I talk about it because it’s – we just had so many people that – friends and family and people from the different educational communities that I’ve been part of over the last decade. People we don’t even know came and saw what our story was and donated money. And we’ve just been overwhelmed. It’s just – it’s replaced a significant part of my salary, and it’s really allowed me to focus on healing and taking care of these babies and allowed us to be together as a family during this really difficult period.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So many Americans find themselves in a similar position. Do you reflect on that? Do you think it’s an important tool to help people? Or should there be other mechanisms to help people in your situation?

CARMAN: Well, especially with the political climate the way that it is now, I think we’re going to see more of this. I think we’re going to see more people with less help from insurance, and that’s extremely concerning to me. I think that it is an option. It’s really hard to ask for help. That was something that was hard for me to do, and it’s hard to accept help sometimes. And this is what got us through, and I would encourage people to consider it in their situation. But I think we are going to, unfortunately, see more of this – more need because people are going to be uninsured or underinsured.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask also how your twins are doing?

CARMAN: Oh, my gosh. They’re amazing. They’re – I’m just so in love. And they’re just an absolute joy. And (laughter) right now we’re in a throwing-food-on-the-floor phase and putting it in their ears and their belly buttons. And it’s just a really fun age.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s elementary school teacher Lauren Carman. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARMAN: You’re so welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And best of luck.

CARMAN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING SONG, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AFRAID”)

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