High medical costs spur online fundraisers

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Doctors diagnosed Dayton residents Steve and Linda Poock with cancer within two months of one another late last year.

Steve, 64, a self-employed contractor, was covered under his wife’s health insurance, which paid for chemotherapy for his throat cancer but didn’t cover everything, including follow-up treatments and some of the expensive cancer drugs he takes.

His coverage expired after his wife died earlier this year, less that six months after the 51-year-old occupational therapist who worked at Bethany Village retirement home was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

With two daughters in college — Emily and Ellie, both sophomores — Steve is faced not only with thousands of dollars in medical bills and living expenses but also daunting tuition costs at a time when he is unable to work while he recovers from his cancer treatment.

“He’s eating through a feeding tube, and he’s too weak to work right now,” said cousin Michelle Ricica, who joined a growing number of Americans who have turned to online solicitations for donations, otherwise known as crowd-funding, to raise money to pay medical bills for themselves or family members.

“DOUBLE cancer, DOUBLE college tuition, this family of 4 could use your support,” read the original appeal for help on the popular crowd-funding website, GoFundMe.

“I had seen people on Facebook referring to GoFundMe, but I didn’t know much about it,” Ricica said. “We raised $2,000 in the first week. That seemed ridiculous to me that we could to raise that much money in that short a period of time.

“We were asking for money, but it’s not like we expected this,” she said. “I was just fighting for my family members so they wouldn’t have to stress about money so they could just focus on their treatment. A lot of people made donations; a lot of them anonymously. It just shows people are ready to do positive things in their community and help families in need.”

All toll, the Poocks’ GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $11,000 since its launch Jan. 21.

But that’s just small fraction of the of the nearly $500,000 in donations Dayton-area campaigns have collected since GoFundMe was started in 2010, said Maggie Perry, a company spokeswoman.

Nationwide, GoFundMe has raised more than $800 million, of which, about $200 million has gone to cover medical expenses — the fastest growing category for donations, Perry said.

The number of contributions for medical expenses was up more than 293 percent in 2014, when more than 600,000 medical campaigns were launched, compared to just over 158,000 in 2013.

Health care experts say skyrocketing medical costs have left many families with the dire decision to either forego treatment or face financial ruin.

Comprehensive cancer care, for example, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and many specialty cancer drugs aren’t covered by insurance, said Kev Coleman, director of research and data for HealthPocket — a California company that compares and ranks health plans.

While prescription drug costs for new cancer treatments are soaring, many health insurers will only cover those drugs they deem the safest and most cost-effective, which excludes many of the newest treatments.

“One of the biggest consumer misconceptions is that their health plan covers all drugs,” Coleman said. “They don’t. Whether it’s Medicare, Obamacare, whatever. If you don’t have savings to deal with unforeseen medical costs like this, it’s no surprise that you’d look at alternative ways to raise money.”

While crowd-funding campaigns allow cancer victims and others to reach vast numbers of potential donors, the platform is ripe for fraud.

A Dayton woman was recently arrested for fraud after falsely claiming she had cancer and soliciting donations online for her treatment.

More recently, scammers using the name of a 4-year-old boy who drowned in North Carolina set up bogus GoFundMe accounts to solicit donations to help pay for funeral costs, diverting donations from the legitimate campaign set up by his mother.

Charity watchdog groups urge consumers to use common sense when making donations.

“Generally, we encourage consumers to make sure they know where their money is really going,” said Kate Hanson, spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “Unfortunately, we have seen scams where people use the names of well-known organizations to collect money, but the money never ends up going to the organization. In that case, you would want to contact the charity itself to make sure they know about the fundraiser.”

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