Victoria Flores (right), whose friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for her cancer treatment, visits with her son Mateo Flores in the hospital. Credit: Courtesy / Victoria Flores

When 31-year old Victoria Flores was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, she and her husband were still paying off hospital bills from the recent birth of their son.

They were quickly overwhelmed by the cost of treatment for Flores’ Stage 4 bile duct cancer, which can run tens of thousand of dollars per month for a disease that is often fatal.

“You can’t just call the hospital and say, ‘Hey, this is my income, can I pay you $25 a month?’ The truth, I’m finding, is that you have 18 months to pay off a bill,” said Flores’ husband, Hector. “… We have more than $23,000 in bills for December and January, and we are still receiving them.”

A family friend responded with an increasingly common strategy to cope with sky-high medical bills: asking for donations online through a GoFundMe campaign. Since starting the page on Jan. 6, more than $26,000 has been donated toward the $50,000 goal for Victoria.

Hector Flores told the Rivard Report that his wife was initially opposed to asking for online donations to help cover treatment costs, especially since both she and her husband were covered by employer-provided insurance. “She felt like she was begging on the street corner for money, asking for pity,” he said.

But when the opportunity to participate in a potentially life-saving clinical trial came up, Victoria agreed to online crowdfunding to help cover the $10,000 cost, which needed to be paid upfront if not covered by insurance. After initially denying the claim, Victoria’s insurance provider agreed to cover the cost of the trial following an appeal.

Over the past few years, crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe have become a source of help in paying medical expenses. The sites raise funds for a specific cause or project by asking people to donate money, usually in small amounts.

Scrolling through the GoFundMe website reveals hundreds of San Antonians looking for financial support to cover medical bills. Some examples:

  • The family of a man recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer started a campaign to help with treatment costs and household expenses; his wife recently took unpaid time off from her job to provide full-time care, leaving the family without an income.
  • Parents whose three children were involved in a car accident that killed the oldest child began a campaign to help pay for the emergency medical care for the surviving children.
  • The family of a 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy affecting one side of his body set a $25,000 fundraising goal to help cover the cost of corrective eye surgery and surgery to lengthen his Achilles tendon.

Founded in 2010, GoFundMe helps users create fundraisers for dozens of categories, including education, travel, and business. Nearly 250,000 campaigns have been set up through the site to help pay for health care costs, raising $650 million in contributions, according to the company’s website.

“In 2017, more than one-third of the money raised globally went to self-categorized medical campaigns,” said Heidi Hagberg, communications manager with GoFundMe. “What’s important to understand about the medical category is that it is not just for cost of care, it could be a [medical campaign] for a family who is redoing their house to make it wheelchair-accessible, so there are nuances within the category.”

GoFundMe campaigns to pay for health care costs have reaped the most cash, bringing in more than $166 million since the website began in 2010, according to GoFundMe.

Reasons for the rising popularity of crowdfunding health care could be the decline in health insurance coverage in recent years, increased deductibles, and affordability, said Dr. Doug Curran, president of the Texas Medical Association.

“The way the health care business has gone, and the way insurance plans have gone, a lot of people are getting higher and higher deductibles because those are the plans that an employer is able to afford,” Curran said. And for those without insurance, “we see people using different [platforms] to reach out to one another to help get care if they need care and can’t afford it.

For the Flores family, GoFundMe is helping to cover the cost of Victoria’s medication, scans, and testing not covered by her employer-provided insurance through United Healthcare; she is also insured by Humana through her husband’s policy. It costs $1400 per month to insure the family of three.

Victoria Flores (right) with her husband Hector and son.
Victoria Flores (right) with her husband, Hector, and son Mateo Flores. Credit: Courtesy / Victoria Flores

“At first, I felt pretty confident and comfortable with the insurances we have, that if one doesn’t cover something my wife needs, the other one should pick it up,” Hector Flores said. But it soon became clear that medications or procedures denied by one provider will likely be denied by both, and there are caps to the number of times a procedure will be covered annually, he said.

Flores said United Healthcare will cover four magnet resonance imagine (MRI) scans, which are necessary to track the progression of his wife’s cancer, per year. “This is of course super important and concerning to us because when we found the tumor on her liver, it was growing about two to four grams a day.”

And then there is the cost for medications. He was stunned when he pulled up to a pharmacy’s drive-through window to pick up an anti-nausea medicine for his wife.

“The pharmacist said it would be $4,000, cash or credit, for four patches that last seven days each,” Flores said.  “We didn’t have those funds.”

A recent report published in the journal Health Affairs found that Americans spent $3.65 trillion on health care in 2018, which is by far the highest in the developed world, and is expected to get worse.

Hagberg said that it is not just people in the United States who are looking into GoFundMe to pay for the cost of medical care; people from across the world have started fundraising campaigns to help pay for increasing costs of clinical trials and medication.

“Globally, medical is also one of the largest categories [for fundraising] in countries that have socialized health care, like Canada,” she said. “So we know it’s not just bills people can’t pay for, it’s everything that goes into it.”

Curran said the large numbers of people turning to GoFundMe to help with medical bills shows the nation’s health insurance system isn’t meeting Americans’ needs.

“There is one thing that is certain: Health insurance isn’t what it once was,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, and I am hoping we will see our legislators begin to work on some clearly defined solutions for health insurance problems.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.