Health Scares, Homelessness, and the Kindness of Strangers

Stephanie Gruner Buckley

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A year ago her husband crashed his motorcycle and underwent multiple surgeries to fix his wrist. He couldn’t work and lost his job. He also lost his health insurance. The wife didn’t work. She raised their two children. Then she got breast cancer and needed chemotherapy.

Suddenly, this solid middle-class couple from an affluent suburb in South Florida had no choice but to set up a GoFundMe page. Without help from others, they couldn’t afford the wife’s medical treatments and she would die.

There’s nothing unique about this story, which a friend posted on my Facebook page. I see these all the time. Prosperous middle-class types who, following a health scare, find themselves one step away from being on the street and are forced to ask total strangers for help.

Despite Obamacare, healthcare costs continue to rise in the US with millions of people lacking comprehensive coverage, and roughly 1 in 4 Americans unable to pay their medical bills, at least back in 2016. (It’s hard to imagine that number has improved).

The current stats are horrifying. The US has the most medical bankruptcies in the world, with medical bills being the single largest cause of bankruptcyin the US. Roughly half a million Americans file for bankruptcy each year because of medical bills. Compare that to France, where that number is virtually zero.

A study of homeless people in Seattle showed that two-thirds of them had medical debt, and a third of those asked said medical debt was at least partly responsible for their homeless situation.

What saves people is the fact that Americans are generous. Even during the pandemic and amid record unemployment in 2020, 18% of American adults reported donating to a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for someone else’s medical treatment, according to a survey released on April 1 by NORC Spotlight on Health at the University of Chicago.

Often it’s people of less means who are the most generous. This survey shows that nearly 40% of donors to crowdfunding campaigns had household incomes of less than $60,000 a year, which is below the US median household income. Of those charitable givers, 36% were either unemployed or retired, and 6% weren’t insured themselves when surveyed.

This must delight government officials. The generosity of Americans, and the ingenuity of entrepreneurs in creating these crowdfunding sites, has relieved pressure on them to tackle this crisis.

In 2020, some 16 million Americans donated to GoFundMe type sites — a figure that has held steady over previous surveys — while an estimated 15 million started campaigns for themselves or someone else.

More than half of the donations were for campaigns related to cancer or accidental injuries — the double-whammy that hit the family I mentioned above. These campaigns were followed in popularity by ones related to heart disease, mental illness, and roughly 2 million donors gave to causes related to COVID-19.

Authors of the NORC study say the survey highlights gaps in insurance coverage such as high out-of-pocket costs, and also draws attention to the fact that the majority of adults (nearly 60%) think the US government should do more to help people who need free or low-cost healthcare treatment.

Go figure.

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Writer, mom, wife, news junkie (not necessarily in that order). Londoner and native Floridian.

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