Crowdfunding helps Boston bomb victims pay medical bills

Carlos Arredondo, in the cowboy hat, helps push Jeff Bauman Jr. in a wheel chair after the Boston Marathon bombings, Monday, April 15, 2013. Bauman later had both his legs amputated. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

(MoneyWatch) Jeff Bauman was among those standing in the wrong place -- near the finish line of the Boston Marathon -- when the first bomb went off. Within seconds of the explosion rescue personnel and people who had just come to see the race were swarming over the area helping the victims. Three came to Bauman's aid, putting him a wheelchair and, while the ashen-faced Bauman clutched what remained of his left leg, rushed him to the medical tent. As they did, a news photographer took what became an iconic picture of the tragedy.

Later that day, when Bauman's friend Sayer Usher found out what had happened he knew he had to do something. So Usher, who lives in the same condo development as Bauman, thought he would raise a little money for his friend.

"I was just going to walk around the condo and a little hand collection," said Usher. "I really meant it to stay within the condo."

But then a friend suggested he try using GoFundMe, one of several sites which crowdsource funding to help with medical bills and other extraordinary expenses. Now Usher is getting donations and more from people who've never even met Jeff Bauman. "We've gotten donations from total strangers. I didn't know it would get this big," he says.

And it's not just money: Bauman lost both of his legs and Usher is coordinating offers from contractors and architects volunteering time and material to make Bauman's home handicap accessible. And Usher's campaign is just one of several being run for Bauman on the site. So far they have raised more than $110,000.

Bauman is far from the only victim of the bombing who will be the recipient of money raised through a number of online sites -- including GiveForward, YouCaring, FundRazr, Fundly, Rally.org, YouCaring and HumanTribeProject -- which let people raise money for themselves or others. (The sites keep anywhere from 5 percent to 12 percent of the donations for the service.) GiveForward estimates that more than $2.8 billion was raised by all types of crowdfunding websites in 2012.

Although many of these sites have different categories people are trying to raise money for -- like education, travel, and celebrations -- medical care is the biggest category in terms of money raised for most of them. At GoFundMe the "medical, illness and healing" is the largest category, accounting for 17 percent of all campaigns. According to the site, people using it raised more than $30 million last year.

The increased use of these sites to pay for treatment highlights the increasing problems caused by paying for health care. According to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Medicine, health-care expenses caused 62 percent of bankruptcies in the U.S., up from 8 percent in 1981. Especially worrying: 78 percent of those filing for bankruptcy had insurance when they first got sick.

This is one more example of how cash strapped most Americans are. Nearly half of American adults living in homes with an income of $100,000 to $150,000 say they wouldn't be able to easily produce $2,000 in the event of a medical emergency. That's according to a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which also found that 75 percent of respondents say they would have to dip into savings, ask friends and family for help or rely on credit cards or a home equity line of credit to raise the money. About 20 percent said they would rely, at least partially, on pawning or selling possessions or taking payday loans.

  • Constantine von Hoffman On Twitter»

    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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