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Americans Are Crowdfunding Health Care. They Shouldn’t Have To.

4 minute read

Darlena Cunha is a contributor to TIME

Would you ask Internet strangers for financial help if it meant saving your child?

Owen Provencher has everything an infant could want, including two loving parents with modest income, an extended family close by, and above average motor skills. But he also has a condition called Metopic Synostosis, and if left untreated it could result in blindness, seizures, brain damage, or even death. His parents, Michael and Amber Provencher, have health insurance through Michael’s employer, but after the surgery they were left with thousands of dollars of medical costs. They decided to ask for help — online.

Nearly two million people a year file bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills, making health care costs the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in the United States. According to the National Bureau of Economics Research, half of all Americans could not afford an extra $2,000 should an emergency crop up. With insurance deductibles for the middle class anywhere from $500 to $7,000, an unforeseen downturn in health could toss nearly anyone into financial distress. People are turning in droves to the do-it-yourself answer: They are crowdfunding their medical bills, hoping their stories will touch the hearts and minds of their friends, families, and strangers alike.

Based on the old church-basement fundraising model, crowdfunding sites act as central hubs for people in need to match with people wanting to donate. With the streamlined use of professional fundraising coaches and social media platforms, these pleas can be heard around the world—if you’re lucky.

Recently, “Success Kidput out a call for help. His father needed a kidney. But he didn’t leverage his Internet fame, and as just a regular family looking for help, the campaign was vastly underfunded. After a Buzzfeed story last week about it, the Internet recognized the meme, and donations came pouring in. The family has now raised more than $100,000, well over what they needed. A viral picture saved a father’s life.

GoFundMe is one of the most successful crowdfunding options, and “Medical, Illness, and Healing” is its most popular section, bringing in 26% of all donations. More and more people are using the site for health-care funding: Last year, it helped raise $147 million for medical costs, up from $6 million in 2012. Still, most campaigns go unseen by the masses, and so thousands of people struggle with the shame of having asked for money and the disappointment of not being able to raise it on their own.

The average amount raised on the site is $1,126 across all categories. That’s almost exactly how much the Provenchers have raised, not enough. “We absolutely raised money that we never would have otherwise, and we’re much better off than we would be without it,” Michael said. “So in that sense, it worked, but we’ve had ours ups for about a month and a half now, and donations stalled out. It seems very unlikely we will actually reach our goal.”

Like many, the Provenchers said they felt embarrassed asking their social network for money, even for a life-saving cause. The majority of donations came from people they knew. Crowdfunding that doesn’t go viral can still help people raise money by alleviating the stress involved in asking individuals directly to give you funds. Families can post a donation call, and those scrolling by can choose to stop and donate or to keep right on going, no questions asked.

What is wrong with our health-care and insurance systems that even people who pay for coverage through their employer or through the marketplace still face staggering costs when they’re most vulnerable? In true American fashion, we are finding our own ways around this issue, but crowdfunding doesn’t address the core problem, which is that these expenses should not be levied at the common working person who has health insurance. And they are.

Crowdfunding is helping thousands of people alleviate their massive medical debts through kindhearted philanthropy. But it shouldn’t have to.

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