The use of sites like GoFundMe underscores the crisis facing mothers, experts say – and donations can be hard to come by
When Kristen and Charlie King were getting ready to have their first child together, every source of support that they had seemed to have a hole in it.
The Spokane, Washington, bistro where Kristen works, as a cook and shift lead, was supportive: it gave her ample time off – first, for bed rest on her doctor’s orders, and then for maternity leave. But none of her leave was paid.
King, 36, served 10 years in the US army as a helicopter mechanic, scrambling around hulking machinery in ways that left her back permanently injured. She received decent insurance coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but her policy wouldn’t cover her new baby, Jaxon, after he was born.
Jaxon was born several weeks early, and a twist of timing ensued. The timing of King’s maternity leave and the open enrollment period for workplace insurance policy meant she wouldn’t be able to purchase insurance for Jaxon for the first few weeks of his life. And Jaxon had big medical bills.
It was all a perfect storm, jeopardizing the Kings’ ability to meet their car payments and rent, buy Christmas presents for Charlie’s sons, and even pay the monthly installments for the couples’ wedding rings.
“We spent Christmas sitting around the house, staring at each other, trying to decide how we’re going to buy formula,” King said. So she followed the path that new parents have started taking in droves to pay for the cost of childbirth: she turned to crowdfunding.
Digital crowdfunding to find aid in the beleaguered US healthcare system is nothing new. Medical-related appeals make up nearly half of all campaigns on GoFundMe – from early 2015 to mid-2016, those campaigns raised $930m – and 70% of campaigns on the charity-focused GiveForward.
But little is certain about the role crowdfunding plays in one of the most common, expensive medical events a family can experience.
The US leads the developed world with the highest costs of giving birth, and childbirth is at the root of a significant portion of medical bankruptcies. Even with insurance, the average out-of-pocket cost to have a child can stretch into thousands of dollars. Complications can pile on even more costs.
Nora Kenworthy, who has studied medical crowdfunding with Lauren Berliner, a fellow University of Washington professor, said the two repeatedly came across new parents raising money for childbirth complications they weren’t expecting, such as a stay in the NICU or a premature delivery.
That they encountered these cases, Kenworthy said, strongly suggested that something within the system was broken.
“Our general rule is: if you can think of a group of people who are struggling with medical bills, whose insurance is not helping, there’s crowdfunding for it,” she said. “Crowdfunding is a product of the persistent gaps in our healthcare system. When people fall through those gaps, they often turn to these platforms as a last resort.”
Berliner and Kentworthy’s research also concluded that crowdfunding can actually help entrench inequality, reliant as it is on having a large social network with money to spare as well as online marketing savvy. People tend to raise more money for discrete health crises, rather than chronic illnesses; in that way, Kenworthy said, birth-related campaigns might garner more donations than the average campaign. But of 200 GoFundMe campaigns in their study, 90% failed to meet their goals.
So it has gone with the Kings’ campaign. As of this article, the couple has raised only $200 out of the $1,500 goal they set. One reason for their deficit may be that their problems are not neat and tidy, insofar as they could be. But more straightforward problems tend to inspire the biggest responses from donors, Kentworthy said. As a hypothetical example, she imagined a cancer patient who needed a precise amount of money to cover a onetime, surefire therapy.
New parents, in contrast, often face problems that are open-ended and unpredictable. For the Kings, the money would have gone not towards lifesaving treatments but rather chipped away at hospital bills, truck payments, rent, and other daily crises that they couldn’t have anticipated. Jaxon was born with a tongue defect that made it hard for him to nurse. He lost more weight, at a faster pace, than doctors expected, and his parents found themselves needing to supplement breastfeeding with expensive baby formula.
Worst yet for a GoFundMe campaign, their messy situation is the product of some very common problems: a tight family budget; a gap in their insurance coverage that no one noticed until it was relevant; an open enrollment period with rotten timing; a job that doesn’t offer paid sick or parental leave.
King has cherished staying home with her son for the first few weeks of his life, but that time has been shadowed by a source of dread: watching the family’s bank account dwindle as they wait for her next paycheck and their disability payments – her husband, too, is an Iraq veteran who was disabled on the job.
“These are the only ‘first weeks’ I’m going to get with my son, and I’m trying to enjoy them while I can,” she said. “But it’s been extremely stressful.”
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