By Constance Gustke, The New York Times
Sometimes paying for a loved one’s health care expenses literally takes a crowd.
Norm Breyfogle, a comic book artist known for his work on Batman, found himself struggling after a stroke in December. He had no health insurance. He was partly paralyzed on his left side, unable to use his valuable drawing hand. And Mr. Breyfogle, 54, was in a nursing home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, facing months of physical therapy.
Worried about his brother’s rapidly rising bills, Kevin Breyfogle decided to step in. He started a crowdfunding campaign, which raises small donations from donors, on the site YouCaring.
“We had to come up with something really quick,” Kevin Breyfogle said, adding that crowdfunding worked better than he imagined. His crowdfunding team set a goal of $200,000 to pay for his brother’s continuing care, raising $20,000 in the first day.
As more caregivers face paying for loved ones’ unexpected out-of-pocket health care costs, they are turning to crowdfunding sites that focus on personal causes like Mr. Breyfogle’s. Sites like GiveForward, GoFundMe and Fundly have devoted sections to health expenses, including specific diseases like cancer.
Even the crowdfunding powerhouse Indiegogo has stepped into the personal crowdfunding arena with its introduction of Indiegogo Life, which includes medical fund-raising, in December.
High out-of-pocket health expenses can quickly deplete a sick person’s financial resources. According to a 2014 Commonwealth Fund survey, 87 percent of people age 65 or older in the United States have at least one chronic illness. Despite Medicare coverage, though, older adults in the United States have more difficulty paying for their care than peers in other developed countries, mostly because of out-of-pocket costs and limits to care, the survey found.
To fill the void, crowdfunding sites are stepping in, with people posting requests for donations to pay for funerals, out-of-pocket medical expenses and, sometimes, interim nursing home care.
The Chicago-based GiveForward, for example, has helped raise $149 million for crowdfunding campaigns since starting in 2008, said Ethan Austin, the organization’s president and co-founder. And most of the money goes to meet unexpected medical expenses, he said. “No one should have to go through a difficult illness alone,” he said, adding that more baby boomers are using it for parents’ care. “And giving someone the opportunity to help is a big gift.”
“Five years ago, no one would have crowdfunded expenses,” Mr. Austin said. “But there’s a tidal shift coming as health care expenses rise.”
Caregivers worry most about financial concerns, said Brooks Kenny, executive vice president at Lotsa Helping Hands, an organization that offers resources to caregivers and volunteers in the Washington area. So crowdfunding can be a powerful solution, she added.
In a mobile society, crowdfunding can cast a big virtual net. Buckley Fricker, a geriatric care manager and president of Buckley’s for Seniors, which offers nonmedical care to older people, said Americans no longer lived in communities where everyone helped take care of a sick elder. In its place, technology can pull from all areas of the country.
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“Technology is breaking down solid walls with virtual windows,” Ms. Fricker said. “And it can virtually recreate the family.”
Don’t expect to go back to the electronic money trough often, though. Fund-raising for unusual expenses works best, Ms. Fricker said. “The need for geriatric care is so far and wide that it’s hard to draw out interest,” she said. So crowdfunding is more successful with extraordinary circumstances, such as Mr. Breyfogle’s.
“Infinite dragging on of expenses won’t garner support,” Ms. Fricker said. People want to visualize the difference they’re making, such as outfitting a home with an elevator or buying a new wheelchair.
Once there’s a specific need, building a wide network is crucial. Don’t just rely on the biggest and best crowdfunding sites to help you, Ms. Fricker advised, but use emails and Facebook to pull in more donations. Mr. Breyfogle was able to draw on a fan base of 5,000 Facebook friends, but having friends spread the word to other friends helps too, experts said. They can even be friends from clubs, churches or schools. “Tap into your network communities where lots of people know each other,” Ms. Kenny suggested.
“Crowdfunding is never going to be a platform where millions give,” explained Mr. Austin. “Usually, 80 percent of the people who contribute are people you know rather than strangers. The key is getting people with big, active networks involved.”
Start the process with closest friends and family to build momentum, he suggested.
“And realize that people don’t always contribute the first time you ask,” he said. “It may take three or four times of continued asking.” Getting three or four people out of 100 to donate is a good rate, he said, adding that persistence is important.
The Pataki family turned to their friends and family to help pay for a health expense gap after Marguerite Pataki, a 76-year-old California resident who had a stroke last summer, was placed in at-home care rather than a nursing home, which health insurance would have covered.
“Suddenly costs started snowballing,” said Monica Pataki, Marguerite’s daughter, who lives in Arizona. “My dad was wading through a morass of bills and fees.” And the Pataki children were quickly running out of money.
So the family started a fund-raising campaign on GiveForward in early December to raise $11,648 to pay for a caregiver and other expenses. “Within 15 minutes we were set up online,” Ms. Pataki said. “Short of selling everything we have, this is the best thing we could come up with.” To rev up the campaign, the Patakis sent out dozens of emails.
One of the donors was Marlene Robinson, who lives in California and knows the Patakis. Ms. Robinson, who believes in paying favors forward, made a small donation. “I want to support campaigns I resonate with,” said Ms. Robinson, a self-employed inventor. “It’s about connecting with things that feed a purpose.”
Asking for small contributions increases the chances of getting participation, Ms. Fricker said, and the various crowdfunding sites usually allow donations starting at a dollar.
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At the heart of any good campaign is a compelling story, though. So adding lots of photos and detailed information about the loved one can increase donations, experts say. The Patakis ultimately added six more photos to their crowdfunding campaign page. Adding video, even taken with a cellphone, can add more personal color. “You can raise 150 percent more with a video,” said Danae Ringelmann, a co-founder of Indiegogo.
Older, less technologically adept donors may balk at giving money online, though. So the Patakis called some elderly family friends on the phone. “Speaking to them works better,” Ms. Pataki said. “And they’ve been kind and sent checks.”
The family had to overcome some discomfort about asking for money, Ms. Pataki acknowledged.
“You’re laying out your dirt online,” she said. “And it’s humiliating.” As the campaign evolved, however, the Patakis found that donors were touched by their mother’s story rather than pitying their lack of money.
Crowdfunding can be an excellent way to bring in money that’s tax-free. The I.R.S. treats these personal-cause donations as gifts for recipients, Mr. Austin noted.
Fund-raisers may need to spend money to make money, though. Some personal crowdfunding sites charge fees for their services. GiveForward, for example, charges a 7.9 percent fee plus 50 cents per donation transaction.
For Mr. Breyfogle, though, crowdfunding has become the difference between hope and despair. Although the campaign continues for another month, “I don’t feel that I’m in dire financial straits anymore,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on January 31, 2015, on page B5 of the New York edition with the headline: Managing Health Costs With Crowdfunding