Crowdfunding Campaigns Becoming a Backup Plan for Medical Emergencies

The photo shows the front of an ambulance.
File Photo

Tim Grant

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

(TNS)

Firefighter Bob Jeke is usually the main point of contact in McCandless for getting just about anything accomplished, and the last person who would ask for help.

“He’s a big dude. A man’s man. When you shake his hand, it’s like putting your hand inside a baseball glove,” said Ryan Mergl, a former Peebles District volunteer firefighter.

An ex-chief of the Peebles District, Mr. Jeke is a tree remover by trade. He was seriously injured in late October when a tree limb fell on him at work. The accident landed him in the intensive care unit for a month, and plunged his family into a financial crisis.

This would normally be an occasion for friends of the family to raise money with spaghetti dinners and bake sales, or passing the hat for donations at fire department training meetings.

But old-fashioned fundraisers pale in comparison to how much the Jeke family was able to raise and the speed in which they did it through an internet-based GoFundMe campaign.

They tapped into the world’s most popular crowdfunding platform to raise more than $22,000 in a matter of days. His medical expenses are being covered by workers compensation insurance, but the donations will help keep the family’s finances above water. Mr. Jeke, the primary breadwinner, is receiving only 60% of his income while he is out of work and recovering.

The social media website GoFundMe has become a fallback plan for families and individuals facing every kind of financial emergency. Although medical bills and expenses not covered by insurance accounts for the largest category of fundraisers on the site, public pleas for donations cover the full spectrum of hardship and misfortune.

People are appealing to the kindness of strangers to help them pay for funerals, all kinds of disasters and accidents, veterinary bills, even rent and legal defense costs, just to name a few of the causes.

But medical campaigns – which collect about $650 million each year, or a third of all contributions – represent the lion’s share of all donations to the site, according to the company based in Redwood City, Calif. The platform, which collects a payment processing fee of 2.9% plus 30 cents per donation, is seeing its highest demand ever this year as the new coronavirus has further complicated the lives of millions of people who also lost their health insurance when they lost a job.

The Jeke family believes their online campaign has gone well because many who know Bob Jeke see it as a chance to return a favor to the McCandless native who has been a volunteer firefighter for 40 years and served as chief for 16 years.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go in McCandless and people don’t know our dad,” said his daughter Kayla Lomb, 30.

Mr. Jeke’s wife, Donna, became a full-time caretaker when he got hurt. The family also lost her income when she had to cut back the hours she works at her job at a manufacturing company.

“Our dad is a point of contact and a pillar in the community,” said Kristin Jeke, 28. “He knows somebody everywhere.”

Growing ranks of uninsured

Search results for “Pittsburgh” fundraisers alone on the GoFundMe website this week yielded more than 14,000 hits. 

Bad things happening to good people is the common thread that runs through the heart-rendhing stories and requests for financial help. Overall, from 2010 to the beginning of 2020, over $9 billion has been raised on the platform, with contributions from over 120 million donors, according to the company.

Thousands of pages have been set up on the website for people raising money for one health issue after another:

● A Pittsburgh locksmith with no health insurance was hit by a drunk driver and doctors are working to save his legs.

● A Pittsburgh man who was stabbed and set on fire by another family member is raising money for his treatment.

● A bartender injured on his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver near Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville raised $8,000 in less than 24 hours for his medical bills.

One particularly moving campaign in this region seeks donations for Cooper Nindl, a 9-year-old fourth grader from the Pine-Richland School District battling a life-threatening brain tumor.

“In the winter, Cooper is always the first one to run outside on a snowy day looking for someone to sled with,” said the description posted by a family friend. “And without question, he’s always willing to welcome new kids to the block. He is such a sweet and caring boy, full of life and joy, with a heart of pure gold.”

So far, his family has raised more than $14,000 toward the $25,000 goal.

All that is necessary to launch a GoFundMe campaign is a compelling story and a monetary goal. Anyone can do it. People start campaigns for themselves, their friends and family, and even complete strangers. GoFundMe holds all the donated money until the sponsor requests a withdrawal via electronic bank transfer.

With nearly 250,000 campaigns on the site each year, it’s no surprise that some people have created misleading campaigns with the intention of taking advantage of others’ generosity. The company has policies that forbid breaking the law or lying in the campaign story. The campaign organizer also can’t be misleading about his or her identity or relationship to the intended recipient of the funds. 

For the most part, the company relies on the public to closely scrutinize the campaigns they choose to contribute money to. Donors should look for red flags such as checking to see if direct family members and friends have made donations to a campaign, and if they have left supportive comments on the website.

Meanwhile, a likely reason for the increasing number of families and individuals crowdfunding for health care costs could be the growing number of people who don’t have health insurance.

In the first half of 2020, the Commonwealth Fund in Washington, D.C., found 43.4% of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 were inadequately insured.

The share of adults without health insurance was statistically unchanged from the last time the Commonwealth Fund fielded the survey in 2018. Access to coverage has only gotten worse since the pandemic sent unemployment rates skyrocketing.

The San Francisco-based Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in May that 27 million people who were receiving health coverage as a benefit through their employer lost their insurance following mass layoffs related to the coronavirus.

New job, no insurance

Wyatt Mock, 19, of Butler, had just started his job working at a construction site in Beaver County and had no insurance when he accidentally fell more than 35 feet earlier this month. He suffered multiple injuries, including a fractured skull.

Audra Bowers, a friend of the family, is raising money for the Mock family by selling raffle tickets for gift baskets that she is collecting at her hair salon in Butler – Encore Studio by audra jane.

“He helps his parents with their dairy farm,” Ms. Bowers said. “They are a very loving, hardworking family that would help others even if they can’t afford it. That’s what the community knows and it’s why we support him.”

She expects to collect about $2,000 in donations from the raffle. However, the GoFundMe account has already brought in close to $12,000 of the $15,000 fundraising goal.

The Butler County family raises about 40 head of cattle that have to be milked every day. The accident has been especially hard on them because Wyatt Mock is unable to help on the farm and his parents are now dividing their time between the farm and the hospital.

“They’ve worked their whole life,” Ms. Bowers said. “Anyone that knows farming knows it’s a hard job and there’s never a day off.”

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591

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