Underinsured Patients Seek Funds Online to Help Meet Cancer Care Financial Obligations

Underinsured patients use websites like GoFundMe to pay medical bills after being diagnosed with cancer, but many fundraising campaigns are unsuccessful.

Patients with cancer who turned to online crowdfunding efforts to defray expenses only received about one-quarter of the desired fundraising goal, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study looked at the top 20 most prevalent cancers in the United States using data from the National Cancer Institutes and queried each cancer and US state on GoFundMe.com. Using this method, Andrew J. Cohen, MD, of University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues identified 37,344 cancer campaigns on the website on October 7, 2018. They randomly selected 1,035 campaigns and studied them in greater detail.

They found that the campaign details commonly included information on age, employment status, cancer type, treatment plans, and prognosis, and had a median fundraising goal of $10,000. The median amount of donations was $2,125.

About 40% of the campaigns were launched in an attempt to pay medical bills. Additional reasons included help with medical travel costs (25.3%) and nonmedical bills (23.2%).

“Although the Affordable Care Act reduced the uninsured rate, cost containment measures have not been realized by all patients,” the researchers wrote. “In this cohort, patients reported multiple competing financial needs, but most pressing were unpaid medical bills, which may represent copays, out-of-pocket drug costs, or high deductibles.”

Campaigns for those people who mentioned being underinsured requested $10,000 most on average than those campaigns that did not mention insurance status. Campaigns for the underinsured made up 26.2% of the population studied. Those who were underinsured were more likely to seek aid for unpaid medical bills compared with those who did not mention insurance (65.7% vs 32.1%; P<.01). Additionally, those who were underinsured were significantly more likely to report unstable employment (P<.01) and to mention prior surgical treatment (P<.01).

The researchers noted that the study results may not be generalizable to all patients and that claims made online could not be verified.

“Nonetheless, these results suggest that the financial burden of health care requires increasing attention and advocacy,” they wrote.